Feb 6th, 2011 by admin
In a incredible study carried out by an interdisciplinary team of researchers both in the US ad in Kenya, Africa, similarities between PTSD in humans and PTSD in elephants were discussed, allowing for a deeper understanding of the breakdown that occurs when people – and animals – are exposed to severe trauma.
In the study cited (Nature, Vol. 433, February 2005, p.807, www.nature.com/nature) a group of young elephants who witnessed the violent deaths of their parents at a very young age, ten years later went on a killing rampage attacking and killing hundreds of rhinoceroses. Does this sound familiar?
This study is particularly important because it shows how PTSD can later account for explosions of seemingly unpredictable and random violence, as we see happening with some of our untreated war veterans suffering from PTSD, after they return home from the war front. Additionally, people who suffer from PTSD tend to experience difficulties relating with others and face challenges in successfully returning to previously held social positions. They may suffer from mood disorders, increasing risk of suicide and can develop addictions and substance abuse. They tend to be hyper-vigilant, being uncomfortable around people. All this makes recovery difficult to achieve.
The study mentioned earlier also shows how the experience of serious trauma can affect not only the people who experienced it but other people as well, in the present and even in future generations. This is so because trauma produces deep disruptions not only in the individual, but in the traditional social structures – the very fabric of our society – that under normal circumstances protect individuals.
When PTSD leads to domestic violence, for instance, partners are deeply affected by it. Additionally, children raised in that family are exposed to fighting and hostility at an early age and become traumatized, thus “inheriting” the experience of trauma. When you couple this picture with a lack of extended family and elders who can play compensatory parental roles to these children and a society where domestic violence can still go unnoticed more often than it should, you can see how these children don’t have a lot of chances of being unaffected.
Children who are raised in families where there is domestic violence tend to experience elevated stress hormone levels and are more likely than children raised in families without domestic violence to develop asocial behaviors and a tendency to become hyper-aggressive when they become teenagers and adults. In turn, if untreated, they will transmit these violent tendencies to the next generation, and so on in a pathological cycle of trauma transmission.
Women – or female elephants – when exposed to trauma are affected in different ways than random violence. When they have their young, they tend to exhibit poor mothering skills, an inability to allow their babies to securely attach to them and, at times, act in rejecting and neglectful ways. They also have higher than normal stress hormone levels and have difficulties in developing strong bonds with the group in which they live.
We live in social systems, with rules and regulations that buffer us from the intensity and devastation of traumatic experience, providing, support, comfort, compassion, understanding and empathy. When social systems are weak or non existent, the traumatized individual won’t have the support and help needed. Hence, recovery becomes much harder to achieve. If we go back to the elephants mentioned earlier, when older males were re-introduced in groups, violent and hyper-sexual aggressive behaviors in young males stopped.
So, it is important to remember that, in our society, when soldiers come home from wars traumatized and feeling disconnected, they need societal and family support, mentoring, acceptance and understanding, as well as professional help to help them process what happened and heal the wounds caused by trauma.