“Guys, what if there was an earthquake right now?” my friend joked—well, half-joked, because it’s Southern California, after all, and it could happen at literally any minute. “Stop,” I told her, playfully. “I don’t want to think about it. I’m more afraid of earthquakes than anything else. Except maybe the Holocaust.” It was a Saturday afternoon, we had taken mushrooms for Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) and hiked from our campsite to a mountaintop in the Angeles National Forest. From our perch, where I laid down in the dust beneath the dappled shade of a few meager trees, with a view of the valley to the north and wooded hills below us, I wondered if an earthquake would even affect us this high up.
“But really though, I think I have some sort of trauma from ‘94,’’ I continued, thinking back to the tremors, measured at a magnitude of 6.7, that originated in the San Fernando Valley at 4:30 am, wreaking havoc and wrecking homes all over Los Angeles, including parts of ours on the west side of the city. The damage that ensued rocked LA (and my psyche) more than the quake itself. Still in diapers, I slept through it, according to my mother, but to this day, whenever I’m in California or think about it from afar, the possibility of an earthquake is always somewhere between the forefront and back of my mind—situated similarly in my mental landscape to the everpresent possibility of another Holocaust.
We were still just joking around, when seemingly out of nowhere, my body presented some sort of somatic release—tears—at the realization of how affected I am, on some internal level, by a historical trauma that took place half a century before my lifetime. But in the Jewish world, one might be hardpressed to go through a day, or if you’re lucky, a week or a month, without mention of the Holocaust. I read a lot of Holocaust literature as a kid, even impersonated Anne Frank for a “living biography” book report in fourth grade; is it that the little girl inside of me is afraid there will be another Holocaust, have I inherited the fear that my predecessors felt during that time period, or on a metaphysical level does the genetic code of my soul still simply hurt because it happened?
Whether we can call this trauma is up to the experts—and at times when therapists have offered to practice trauma-healing modalities with me like EMDR (eye movement desensitization reprocessing) or EFT (emotional freedom technique, or tapping therapy), it’s been more in relation to issues stemming from family drama than earthquakes or the Holocaust—which when you put it like that seem all the more random, as sources of trauma, compared to growing up in a broken home.
But what is trauma, anyway? Nowadays it’s become something of a buzzword, a concept that’s oh-so of the zeitgeist, especially when you look at what the defining factors of our zeitgeist really are: a global pandemic, political chaos, climate change, the list goes on. It all feels like something’s closing in on us, becoming more severe, as we inch, faster and faster, toward implosion. In Judaism, some might say we’re approaching Moshiach, or the Messiah; things get worse before they get better, but also that things get better as they get worse (think for instance, that we live in a time when you can press a button on a device and food magically comes to your door, while simultaneously, homelessness is at an all-time high in California).
In the words of physician, trauma expert, and Holocaust refugee Gabor Maté, “So much of what we call abnormality in this culture is actually normal responses to an abnormal culture. The abnormality does not reside in the pathology of the individuals, but in the very culture that drives people into suffering and dysfunction.” With one in five Americans diagnosed with mental illness in any given year, with suicide as the second most common cause of death for American youth between the ages of 15 and 24, with drug overdoses killing more than 80,000 people in the US annually, and the autoimmunity epidemic affecting 24 million Americans, Maté asks in his latest documentary The Wisdom of Trauma, “what is going on?” Trauma, he argues, is evidenced by the “the interconnected epidemics of anxiety, chronic illness, and substance abuse.”
But, there are solutions—and we’re talking about them in the psychedelic world.
As psychedelics become more accepted in mainstream consciousness, collecting wins in decriminalization campaigns across the country while clinicians with MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) hurtle forward with FDA-approved research looking at MDMA for the treatment of PTSD, it’s becoming easier to talk about, recognize, and destigmatize trauma. Some might even say it’s overdue. As psychologist and trauma expert Peter Levine says, “Trauma is perhaps the most avoided, ignored, belittled, denied, misunderstood, and untreated cause of human suffering.”
But now that it’s getting more attention, some may ask, is it all merited? Or are we fetishizing trauma, belittling real trauma, and overusing the term at the expense of those who have endured serious, bonafide traumatic events— which now are bestowed the same articulation (“traumatized”) as those processing less severe burdens.
Maté defines trauma as “not what happens to you, [but] what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you.” Trauma, he says, is a “disconnection” from one’s “true, genuine, authentic self,” while “healing is the reconnection with it.” Other definitions of trauma, as Natalie Ginsberg, global impact officer at MAPS, described to me, revolve simply around the feeling of being unsafe.
In all the different ways we talk about trauma, says Dr. Rachel Yehuda, director of the Center for Psychedelic Psychotherapy and Trauma Research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, “what gets confounded in the discourse is the difference between having an experience and having negative effects of that experience.” It’s difficult to predict who will respond and how to potentially traumatic experiences; some people develop PTSD from events that others emerge from with little consequence. “The most important message is really that we all experience trauma in our lives,” says Yehuda, but of the 70 to 90 percent of people who live through the type of experience that could cause PTSD, only 10 to 15 percent will get it.
While trauma takes many forms, we can break it down into a few main categories: PTSD, C-PTSD, systemic trauma, and generational trauma. In the context of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Yehuda explains, we’re talking about a (potentially) life-threatening event that provokes fear or shock. Complex trauma, or C-PTSD, on the other hand occurs in relation to a series of severe experiences, like abuse, violence, or emotional neglect. “What’s complex about those traumas is that the experiences often occur during a developmental stage in which [a person] is particularly vulnerable to the imprint of trauma, and the experiences themselves are generally repetitive or continuous: Having a steady diet of those experiences can profoundly affect development,” Yehuda says. “Experiences of abuse or neglect when you’re young can be very confusing [because] sometimes you get a lot of positive attention along with negative attention. Furthermore, the perpetrator is often someone who should be trustworthy, like a family member, clergy, or teacher.” For many with C-PTSD, it can be difficult to understand the connection between the traumatic experience(s) and the symptoms. And moreover, she adds, “you don’t have enough experience of yourself as a non-traumatized person to know [why] you are the way you are, or what you were like before the abuse” whereas an adult who experiences trauma can have a distinct memory of what things were like before they were traumatized.
Read: MDMA for Racial Trauma
Then there’s systemic trauma, which is akin to complex trauma in that it doesn’t stem from a singular, distinct, or large traumatizing event—but from paradigms such as racism, classism, or capitalism (note, however, that this is distinct from C-PTSD, which is more specific to unique circumstances of someone’s upbringing, such as an abusive parent). “I describe trauma as a watershed event that divides your life into before and after,” says Yehuda. “Most people who are using the term ‘systemic’ are referring to a living situation where they can’t catch a break; everything builds upon itself.” Although the challenges in and of themselves might not be life-threatening per se, the effects of the insults are additive, she explains.
Living with systemic trauma that is woven into one’s cultural or social frame can also lead to generational trauma, or as Yehuda prefers to call it, “the effects of intergenerational trauma.” According to current understanding of epigenetics, a person’s gene function could be impacted by the effects of traumatic experiences that occurred to their predecessors. Generally though, in the case of generational or inherited trauma, a person may respond to stimuli in a way that once protected their ancestors, but which no longer serves a functional purpose and could be holding them back from a healthier, more relaxed nervous system. For example, if someone’s parents lived through war and became hypervigilant, and then passed that tendency to their offspring, the hypervigilance would be helpful if the offspring, as well, is confronted by war, but would be maladaptive for an offspring not living under the threat of war.
This is where race-based trauma comes into play, such as for those of African American, Native American, or Jewish descent (among many other groups), in which the historical conditions that presented a challenge for these groups became systemic, giving rise to complex trauma; the effects of those experiences may have been transmitted generationally. To the extent that the traumas continue in the next generation—such as via persisting systems of oppression—the effects could be compounded. If the systemic trauma does not continue, the offspring may nonetheless experience the effects of systemic trauma as an intergenerationally-transmitted response.
As the saying goes, what you don’t transform, you transmit. “Being aware that the things that happen to us can affect us is ultimately very positive, even if at first, it is painful to take in. It’s a way of being mindful, and ultimately, this can help us make adjustments to the way we respond to our environments,” says Yehuda. “The word ‘trauma’ has a very negative valence, and it often doesn’t make room for some of the positive consequences of trauma exposure that can occur once these events are processed and incorporated into our narratives about ourselves. These consequences could include learning from experience, having a challenging experience shape us in meaningful or positive ways—this is what is often referred to as posttraumatic growth.”
Psychedelics can be among the tools that help people cope with trauma in a substantial, transformative, and efficient way. “They put you in touch with your autobiography and help you contain your experiences of self, developing a compassion and empathy toward yourself,” says Yehuda. “I think that how we develop healing societies is an important question: How do we develop individual healing and come together after adversity?”
Just as the definition of trauma can at times be nebulous, so too is the definition of what we mean when we talk about treating trauma, with or without psychedelics. And in a time of leaning into the trauma buzzword, people may even start to weaponize their trauma, hiding behind it rather than owning the responsibility of healing. “When everything is explained through a trauma lens (‘I’m like this because I have trauma’), it becomes this way to escape reality or escape doing the work,” says Dr. Ido Cohen, psychologist and co-founder of The Integration Circle, a community of practitioners offering support for those preparing for or integrating experiences of expanded consciousness. “Understanding that you have trauma doesn’t mean you’ve cured it.”
Trauma work is repetitive, he describes, and involves returning to painful feelings and memories. “You revisit those somatic imprints, you digest them here and there, have insight, and make small changes,” he says. “Psychedelics can fast forward the story [by opening] up a narrative in a fast and nuanced way.” If trauma can be defined as “an experience that’s too much to bear consciously and impacts our capacity to feel,” Cohen says, “psychedelics allow us to feel what was unbearable before.”
If someone felt fear before, psychedelics can help peel open an emotional dimension that can allow a person to start linking things, and help them learn to sit with difficult emotions. “Psychedelics are incredible, trauma work aids, they’re a guide—but they’re not the solution, they’re not a cure,” says Cohen. “If you treat it like a cure, it will become very fast like another addiction or another pill. I’ve seen people moving from microdosing becoming a sacred thing to taking it like aspirin.” Getting to that point, he says, poses the risk of losing touch with personal responsibility; it’s important not to “fall into that trap of wanting to relieve suffering by bypassing your own process.”
We walk a fine line between bypassing our own trauma—both in finding quick relief, but also in treating everything except trauma as the root cause of so much else, such as anxiety or addiction. In a conversation with Columbia University psychology professor and neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart about his book Drug Use for Grown-Ups, which dissects the opioid crisis and the false dichotomy between “good drugs” and “bad drugs,” I floated the fantasy of repurposing America’s (f)ailing drug treatment centers as trauma treatment centers. Indeed, it’s often that when a person’s drug use becomes problematic, it isn’t about the drug, but other underlying factors.
Hart cautions against attributing the potential for trauma to every little thing, however, because “it belittles real trauma.” In the event of someone who, say, has a challenging relationship to drugs, when there is an exclusive focus on trauma, it leaves all the other reasons or problems unattended to. Drug dependence is symptomatic of other things—sometimes those things are trauma, but other times not—and as such, each patient needs to be treated on an individual basis. “Get rid of the one-size-fits-all model,” Hart recommends. Somebody can be abused as a child and go on to become a person with a substance use disorder, but the correlation doesn’t equal causation and, therefore, not everyone who is abused as a child will develop a drug problem.
Returning to the mountaintop, we’d luckily moved on from conversations about earthquakes or the Holocaust. My friends and I found a dusty plateau beneath the warmth of the afternoon sun, where I plopped down flat on the earth. I closed my eyes and placed my cap over my face, to protect from getting sunburned, but it had the effect of wearing an eyeshade, which reminded me of the model used in psychedelic therapy trials. Why does therapy have to be inside a clinic, I thought to myself? Couldn’t it be just as healing to go with a therapist into nature and practice the same model there? I let a series of visions swirl through my consciousness, until eventually we sat up and began cracking jokes. Jokes about family drama, past romantic relationships, Jewish trauma, and the like—stuff that I talk about in therapy, but here was able to make light of. My eyes welled with tears from laughter, but the release was as cathartic and somatic as if I were really crying. Maybe I was, through giggling and gabbing about life, love, and the inner or “gifted child” drama of it all. (Alice Miller fans, you feel me?)
Whatever we did, it worked. I came out of the experience feeling lighter, a bit more in touch with myself. Therapy doesn’t have to be a grueling process, though sometimes it is. And taking mushrooms “recreationally” can still sometimes be therapeutic. Psychedelics blur the lines between the “spiritual,” “recreational,” and “medicinal,” showing us that perhaps all three paradigms intersect. And by the same token, the ubiquitous nature of trauma shows us just how many opportunities there are for, what Yehuda calls, “post-traumatic growth.” Maybe the question isn’t whether we’re falsely attributing our inner states to trauma, but whether we’re doing so because we’re seeking opportunities to see ourselves through a lens of growth and resilience.
This article was originally published in December 2021 in DoubleBlind Issue no. 6.