An Evolving Analogy
Posted on November 20, 2015
Recently, as part of my own advocacy work, I have been thinking a lot about how to communicate the impact of stress, trauma, poverty, and homelessness to a larger general audience. I think I’ve come up with a useful analogy that I wanted to share with the community. I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the comment section. Here is what I’ve been working on, presented in a format that I would give during a talk.
To understand the impact of psychological trauma and the high levels of stress associated with living in poverty and homelessness, it is critical to understand the biological impact of these events and hardships on a person’s biology. This understanding can help us conceptualize the biological response to stress and trauma, while also providing some perspective for what is needed to recover and heal. To accomplish this, I would like to propose an analogy comparing this impact to someone who recently had their leg amputated due being in an automobile accident with a drunk driver who aspires to run a marathon.
The person experiencing this tragedy has obviously had a change to their biology, as a leg that was there one day is not there the next. Additionally, no one would blame the person for this condition. Someone else made a terrible choice that impacted the biological reality of the victim. With modern technology, a great amount of support, and patience, the victim can learn to walk with a prosthetic leg, work hard to build the strength and coordination to run short distances, and over time, gain enough confidence and resiliency to run a marathon. Recent experience has shown us that, while the person has some large challenges to overcome, people with amputated limbs have been able to compete at the highest levels of competition.
This person would be greatly celebrated and honored in our society as a hero, and no one would deny them the support and resources necessary for them to realize their potential and overcome their challenges. Let’s contrast this to the person experiencing repeated, or complex, childhood trauma.
While less visible, complex trauma also dramatically impacts biology, especially brain development and functioning. The survival parts of the brain overdevelop in order to survive the repeated trauma, at the expense of the development of brain areas that regulate emotion, promote learning, and allow for the strategic thinking necessary for employment and academic success. As with the amputee, few would blame the victim of childhood trauma. Also similarly, this biology can be overcome with a great deal of support, patience, and assess to modern psychological treatments.
Unfortunately, here is where the analogy stops. It is easy for us to comprehend the resources and support needed to help those learning to live with a new biological reality due to an amputation. The biological reality of trauma is hidden and historically misunderstood, but no less powerful as an impediment to healthy functioning.
The biological impact of both the amputation and trauma prevent what is considered to be normal functioning, yet one person elicits an empathetic response while the other receives judgement and condemnation. We think the traumatized person is lazy, unmotivated, unstable, weak, and a drain on society and, as a result, do not provide the necessary support and resources for them to run their own marathon – integration back into mainstream society, with opportunities to reach their educational and occupational potential. While we would never expect the person with the prosthetic leg to run a day after surgery, we seem to demand exactly this from the trauma victim. Even though both face biological challenges, we expect the trauma victim to be able to will themselves immediately back into a successful, normal life, “if they could just find the motivation.”
We can justify some of this with ignorance about the complexity of the biological impact of trauma. This is one of the reasons we must think about how we can educate our funders, policymakers, and neighbors every chance we get. I believe, as human beings, we are compassionate people, but this compassion comes from connection and understanding. As long as there is ignorance, we make the problem worse and miss opportunities for the healing and support that is necessary for the accomplishment of one’s hidden potential.