Although natural disasters can cause death and despair, they hardly leave us with trauma the way we, ourselves, do. We are at the mercy of us, human beings who show no remorse. It’s almost as if God skipped a few while handing out empathy. Notoriously known are narcissists, with a self-image so great and self-esteem so fragile that even the slightest criticism can cause damage, which is why they constantly look for attention and admiration, achieved by manipulative and vindictive acts. They are quick to turn to the use and abuse of other people, including, or at the costs of, their own children. As a result, their children grow up hurt and having such a low self-esteem that they are easily damaged, look for attention and admiration, and turn to the use and abuse of other people. These people, as a consequence, are so hurt that they turn to the use and abuse of… well, I think you get the point. It’s almost as if trauma gets passed down, like a little train that stops at every generation.

Because we originally evolved to become a nurturing and empathic social species, the use and abuse by others doesn’t sit very well with us. It’s mainly the limbic system in the central part of our brain that takes the punch, where emotions are registered. In children, the limbic brain is still developing, which is why experiences, whether good or bad, create an emotional map of the world. And a narcissistic (or traumatized) parent can be a pretty bad experience. They often shift, perhaps unknowingly, between wounding and soothing, sometimes being cruel and sometimes being kind. This creates extreme confusion in children and leads to cognitive dissonance, causing stress in their developing brains. Without an internal sense of security, children find it difficult to distinguish between safety and danger, which is why their little brains quite literally get wired differently.

Children will go through any length to feel seen and loved. If they are denied of such, they will try to draw attention by crying, yelling or breaking stuff. Good children with bad parents seem to have concluded that unless they give a spectacle, nobody is going to pay attention to them. But they will find that their pleading and crying don’t always register with their caregiver. And if the person to whom they naturally turn for love and protection rejects them, children will learn to shut down and ignore emotions. They may even conclude that they are worthless, deserved it for some reason, and start expecting that other people will treat them horribly too. Why else would their own parent treat them that way? An attitude like this makes easy prey for other narcissists, which means they are pretty much set up for more trauma later down the line.

And trauma is quite the brain bummer, let me tell you. The left frontal lobe, called the Broca area, stops functioning almost completely after a traumatic event, which is the speech centre of the brain. Without a functioning Broca, you quite literally can’t put your thoughts and feelings into words. That’s why trauma victims often sit frozen in emergency and court rooms, seemingly having “lost their tongue” when asked what happened. And it’s not only the left frontal lobe, but sometimes the whole left part of the brain that is deactivated after trauma. It goes without saying (sense the irony) that the left part of our brain is pretty vital, particularly for language, problem solving, memory, judgement and impulse control. Without it, we can’t identify cause and effect, grasp long-term effects, or create coherent actions. That’s why traumatized people often make irrational decisions, while quoting that they have “lost their mind”. They have in fact! Or rather, they have “lost executive functioning of the left brain hemisphere.”

Simultaneously, the amygdala is activated during trauma, which is a cluster of brain cells that determines whether stimuli are relaxed or threatening. When threatening, it triggers a cascade of hormones, preparing the body for fright or flight. Adrenaline increases heart rate and blood pressure, while cortisol increases blood sugar and metabolism. The body normally returns to baseline, but in traumatized people stress hormones are being secreted long after the perceived threat. With the passing of time, this will be expressed by agitation and panic, memory loss and attention problems, irritability and sleep disorders. Quite the bummer, like I said. And if that isn’t enough, a traumatized brain also lowers serotonin production, which is a natural remedy for dealing with stress. It makes for quite a nice comeback from “Are you out of your mind!” “No actually, I’m out of serotonin.” (hits the drum: pa dum tss).

When troubled children grow into teenagers with malfunctioning amygdalas and Brocas, they can’t calmly hover over their thoughts the way others do. As a result, they may overlook red flags and get involved with toxic people, who then start using and abu... Whoops, they have just hopped on the trauma train. Final station: PTSD. Because their rational brains were wired to disassociate and ignore messages from the emotional brain, they often don’t take actions when faced with another unsafe environment. Their conscious minds carry on as if nothing is wrong. As the situation progresses, the rational brain may need more heavy tools, such as alcohol and prescription drugs, to dull emotions and drown memories. After all, we not only use our minds to discover facts, but also to hide them. The emotional brain isn’t very good at denial, however, and keeps sending off stress hormones in a desperate attempt to be taken away from the threat. The quite visible end result of that will be a highly emotional, impulsive and aggressive human being.

Animals too don’t always respond to stress in the best of ways. Studies including rats, monkeys, cats and elephants showed that when researchers played a load and intrusive sound, animals ran off home immediately. However, one group was raised in a safe and nurturing nest, whereas the other one in a cold and noisy nest where they were deprived of food. Yet animals of the latter group also rushed home, even after having spent time in more pleasant surroundings where food was plentiful. Are traumatized people perhaps also condemned to seek refuge in what is familiar, no matter how frightening? Terror might even increase the need for attachment and comfort, regardless of whether the source of comfort is also the source of terror. So once you are on the trauma train, getting off isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Trauma can even be passed down generations via our DNA. Methylation patterns, which affect gene expression, are heavily impacted by stress factors such as smoking and chemicals. And trauma, as you may have guessed, is quite a heavy stress factor. It was recently illustrated that the structure of methyl groups can be passed on to offspring. In rats, babies with a caring mother had the brain chemicals that respond to stress be affected differently than babies with a neglecting mother. And these chemicals modified the expression of over a thousand genes. Nurtured rats turned out to be braver, smarter and more resilient to stress than unnurtured rats, which was still apparent in the next generation.

Because trauma has such a cascading effect, it can lead to local jam-packed trains. The United States has become one of those traumatized nations, after generations of military veterans, high school shootings, and discriminated youth. At war with themselves, victims often turn to physical violence, most commonly directed at their partner and children. It was calculated that eradicating child abuse alone would reduce the overall rate of depression by more than half, alcoholism by two-thirds, and suicide, drugs use, and domestic violence by three-quarters. In South Africa, another traumatized nation after the apartheid, violent school teachers, and ongoing inequality, one in three women have experienced domestic or sexual violence. That’s thirty percent of all women trying to be good mothers or compete with men on the work floor with deactivated frontal lobes, spiked cortisol and depleted serotonin.

The expression of traumatic stress is strongly shaped by culture as well, as moral values are a direct response to what is acceptable in a society. This is part of the reason why domestic violence varies so greatly between countries, from 10% in the Philippines to 80% in Egypt. But does this mean that it is almost like a default setting, which men automatically turn to unless they were taught differently? Is the use and abuse of women simply part of human nature? I can’t find it in my heart to accept this theory. I rather believe that it’s the other way around, that abuse is a result of their own trauma. That some men unwittingly hopped on the train and were simply never taught how to get off.

Could this also explain where narcissism comes from? Bad role models, neglect and the inability to express emotions could be the very root causes of non-empathic behaviour. After all, a child’s sense of proper and improper ways to behave, and their moral perceptions of right and wrong are brought to them. Simply put: assholes aren’t born, they are made. If a lack of empathy is indeed the result of poor nurture, instead of our dark nature, it might be easier to lend forgiveness to these people as well, which is the first step to getting off the trauma train yourself. In the end, we can’t always control what happens to us, but we can control how to respond to it, with a little bit more love, and a little bit more compassion.



*1 Bessel Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma

*2 António R. Damásio, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain

*3 Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men