Pandemic, Trauma, and Identity

There's something happening here. But what it is ain't exactly clear.

Two recent essays touch on the social psychology of the COVID pandemic in ways that help explain our national breakdown.

The first, by the NYT’s Sabrina Tavernise, is titled “First They Fought About Masks. Then Over the Soul of the City.” It’s written as a human interest story and filled with some telling anecdotes. I commend it to you in its entirety but want to focus here instead on the 10,000-foot view.

From lockdowns to masks to vaccines to school curriculums, the conflicts in America keep growing and morphing, even without Donald Trump, the leader who thrived on encouraging them, in the White House. But the fights are not simply about masks or schools or vaccines. They are, in many ways, all connected as part of a deeper rupture — one that is now about the most fundamental questions a society can ask itself: What does it mean to be an American? Who is in charge? And whose version of the country will prevail?

Social scientists who study conflict say the only way to understand it — and to begin to get out of it — is to look at the powerful currents of human emotions that are the real drivers. They include the fear of not belonging, the sting of humiliation, a sense of threat — real or perceived — and the strong pull of group behavior.

Some of these feelings were already coursing through American society, triggered by rapid cultural, technological, demographic and economic change. Then came the pandemic, plunging Americans into uncertainty and loneliness, an emotion that scientists have found causes people to see danger where there is none.

Add to all of that leaders who stoke the conflict, and disagreements over the simplest things can become almost sectarian.

Eran Halperin, a social psychologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel who studies emotions in conflict, said that people in intractable fights often do not remember how they started but that they are perpetuated by a sense of group threat. One’s group — for example, American or Christian — is an extension of oneself, and people can become very defensive when it — or its status in a hierarchy — changes.

“If my American identity is an important part of who I am, and suddenly there’s a serious threat to that, in some ways that means I don’t know who I am anymore,” he said. “It’s an attack on the very core of how I see myself, of how I understand myself.”

Professor Halperin said he has been surprised to see that the emotions that have powered the conflict in America were just as intense as those he sees between Israelis and Palestinians. That is because in the United States, unlike in Israel, both sides had relatively high expectations of each other, he said, leading to a sharp shock when “those who were part of us, suddenly do something so counter to our values.”

In Enid, both sides in the mask debate believed they were standing up for what was right. Both cared deeply for their city — and their country — and believed that, in their own way, they were working to save it. And it all started as an argument over a simple piece of cloth.

And this analysis, not from a distant social scientist but a Black man who moved to town and won a seat on the city council, is also prescient:

Mr. Waddell thought it had to do with fear. He said America is in a moment when the people who ran things from the beginning — mostly white, mostly Christian, mostly male — are now having to share control. Their story about America is being challenged. New versions are becoming mainstream, and that, he believes, is threatening.

“You don’t just get to be the sole solitary voice in terms of what we do here, what we teach here, what we show on television here,” he said. “You don’t get to do it anymore. That’s where the fight is.”

He sees it as the next chapter in the story of what it means to be an American, of who gets to write this country’s story. But he does not see the country getting through it without a fight.

“We’re going to have an explosion,” he said. “Whether it’s literal or figurative. It’s going to be bad.”

Contrast that story with Marisa Iati‘s piece for WaPo, “The pandemic has caused nearly two years of collective trauma. Many people are near a breaking point.”

Nearly two years into a pandemic coexistent with several national crises, many Americans are profoundly tense. They’re snapping at each other more frequently, suffering from physical symptoms of stress and seeking methods of self-care. In the most extreme cases, they’re acting out their anger in public — bringing their internal struggles to bear on interactions with strangers, mental health experts said.

Some of those behaviors appear to be the result of living through a long-lasting public emergency with no clear endpoint, the experts said. As the omicron variant rages across the country, it is again unclear when the pandemic restrictions will end. For some people, this kind of catastrophe strains their coping resources and causes them to act in ways that they normally would not.

Layer that onto other recent national crises — including race-driven social unrest, an economic recession, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and myriad extreme-weather disasters — and people can hardly bear the stress.

“We’re just not meant to live under this level of tension for such a prolonged period,” said Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation for the American Psychological Association. “So what that ends up doing is it really wears on our coping abilities to the point where we aren’t able to regulate our emotions as well as we could before.”

That kind of emotional tension is most relevant to people who continue to take precautions and factor the virus into their decision-making. Much of the country has long moved on from tracking the pandemic’s every turn, with many people instead living much like they were in 2019.

But research supports the idea that Americans as a whole are struggling mentally and emotionally. A study of five Western countries, including the United States, published in January found that 13 percent of people reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder attributable to actual or potential contact with the coronavirus, stay-at-home orders, the inability to return to a country of residence or other coronavirus-related factors. The researchers also found that anticipating a negative pandemic-related event was even more emotionally painful than experiencing one.

[…]

That danger heightens the feeling of whiplash among people tired of the pandemic’s twists and turns, said Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science at the University of California at Irvine.

“The news about the omicron variant came right at the time that many people in the U.S. were poised to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with loved ones for the first time in a long time,” she said. “It seemed almost cruel that just when ‘normalcy’ seemed to be on the horizon, hopes were again dashed with the latest news.”

Deep into the piece, Iati adds another layer:

Worry about the pandemic, climate change and other crises has made Kia Penso, 61, so on edge that she can’t watch suspenseful television shows, and interactions with her brother when she is worried about him have become “10 times more explosive.” Her past year and a half has been marked by her uncle’s death from covid-19 and persistent worry about the safety of her elderly mother overseas.

Those stresses have been exacerbated by her feeling that the coronavirus’s threat would be negligible by now if other people hadn’t fallen victim to false claims that the federally approved or authorized vaccines are dangerous. The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have consistently said the immunizations are safe and effective.

“We’re still in danger, we’re still cooped up in our houses to some extent, we’re still not free to move about because of malevolent lies,” said Penso, who lives in D.C.

Ironically, those who seem to fear the virus the least (but fear immunizations and masking most) are pretty much free to move about as they please, because they’re just living as though we’re not in a pandemic. To be sure, they’re dying at a faster rate.

I’m not fully sure how these two narratives meld. But, clearly, there’s more going on than differing risk tolerances or the influence of Donald Trump and Fox News.

Tavernise’s reporting and storytelling are powerful. and there’s clearly something to the identity politics angle. There’s no doubt that there’s a faction of the country that genuinely believes “their” country is being stolen from them and replaced by something inferior. That has explained parts of our politics for a very long time. But I’m not sure, exactly, how that plays into the divide over vaccines and masking.

Regardless, the pandemic has sharpened the divide and the wear of masks—and the way in which masks are worn—has become a powerful symbol to divide Us and Them.

FILED UNDER: COVID-19, Society, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Mu Yixiao says:

    Add to the mix the fact that a lot of our traditional forms of stress relief–social gatherings, events, hanging out at the bar–are the things that are being forbidden as part of dealing with the pandemic. We don’t have the same level of resources for “blowing off steam” right now, so it’s getting bottled up. And that pressure has to be let out somewhere.

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  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    Mr. Waddell’s thoughts are accurate. If you look beyond the US, you see similar forces at work in many societies. One of the drivers of Brexit was fear of immigrants changing Britain. The fear wasn’t limited to immigrants from former colonies, those seem to be somewhat accommodated, but also immigration from the EU member states of eastern Europe and particularly refugees.

    In France, Marcon has moved to the right on immigration, La Pen is now being challenged from the right and the Conservative Party nominee scored her nomination by being the furthest to right on immigration. Belarus’s pressure campaign against Poland and the EU played on Europe’s fear of ME refugees.

    You can even consider China’s crackdown on non-Han citizens as an attack on the ‘other,’ is simply a different point on the same continuum as America’s white/Christianist identitarian attitudes toward Blacks and recent immigrants.

    The pandemic then becomes just another thing to argue over.

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  3. CSK says:

    I could be wrong–I often am–but the refusal to wear masks and get vaccinated and boosted has become not just a symbol of the divide but the most visible, aggressive way for True American Patriots to demonstrate their refusal to be cowed by liberals bent on turning this country into a Communist hellhole.

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  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    People can hardly bear the stress?

    Dear Pioneers: your descendants, the richest people in human history, a people whose biggest health problems come from gorging on cheap and plentiful food; a people with instant access to all the world’s knowledge and all the world’s entertainment every day all the time; a people with magical vehicles that carry them from place to place at seventy miles an hour and other vehicles that will fly them through the air at 600 mph; a people whose homes are warmed in winter and cooled in summer; a people who no longer fear leprosy, cholera, typhoid, malaria, yellow fever, polio or the plague; a people who have no fear of foreign invasion; those people, your descendants, are fucking traumatized by having to get three needle pricks and wear a mask when visiting one of the roughly ten billion business establishments ready to cater to their every need.

    Jesus Tapdancing Christ.

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  5. EddieInCA says:

    It’s sad to realize that 35% of Americans will side with the zombies when the Zombie apocalypse finally gets here.

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  6. JohnMcC says:

    @Michael Reynolds: There is a speech by Churchill in my memory in which he recites the events of world conquest by ‘English-speaking peoples’ and ends by saying some such as ‘we have not crossed these deserts and scaled these mountains BECAUSE WE ARE MADE OF SUGAR CANDY!’

    Quite a rousing speech. You came really close.

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  7. @Michael Reynolds: I take the basic point, but just because one can find more grueling examples of stress doesn’t mean that the current stress is unreal or insignificant. There has been some significant level of disruption to a lot of people’s lives and I think it a mistake to downplay it.

    And, MR, in fairness, based on your own descriptions of your life, the pandemic has affected you less than it has many others, so perhaps you should take that into consideration when making these assessments.

    And while there have definitely been stressors in my own life as a result of the pandemic (having a son who works as an EMT, and therefore in the thick of it from the beginning), having two other sons in college navigating the disruptions, and just having to manage the mess that has been the case at work, I know I have suffered less disruption than have a lot of people.

    But it is pretty clear that society, as a whole, has clearly taken on significant stress in what is going on two years of disruption, sometimes quite a significant disruption.

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  8. Tony W says:

    There’s no doubt that there’s a faction of the country that genuinely believes “their” country is being stolen from them and replaced by something inferior. That has explained parts of our politics for a very long time.

    Archie Bunker comes to mind.

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  9. I mean, just people with school-age children trying to home-school and work from home at the same time for months on end while worrying about everyone getting sick is no small thing. Add onto that the fact that a lot of jobs were threatened and friends and family getting sick and other factors and you get a pretty significant level of social stress.

    It isn’t the Oregon Trail, but it isn’t a walk in the park, either.

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  10. @Tony W: Well, those were the days!

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  11. @Steven L. Taylor: Indeed, anyone wants a basic example of reactionary politics, just read the lyrics and of the theme song and think about its context for someone in the 1970s looking back on pre-New Deal America.

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  12. EddieInCA says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    While there is no doubt that there are stressors directly related to the pandemic, the simple fact remains that we, as a country, and as a world, will never beat the virus unless everyone, literally, everyone buys into the idea that the only way to get rid of it is to get vaccinated. We are giving way too much leeway and respect to the not vaccinated.

    What if the next virus is a polio like illness? We now have a country where 35% of the population believes vaccinations are a liberal plot, and won’t a vaccination for anything. What does public health look like if 35% of school kids suddenly don’t have vaccinations against measles, rubella, polio? What does public health look like if 35% of people don’t take public health seriously?

    If I was in charge, the vaccine mandates would be severe and unrelenting. I’d want this thing squashed.

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  13. One quick thought about the post and especially the first quite article: it underscores what I mean when I personally talk about identity: we all have them and they are mulitfaceted. The press (and sometimes folks here) talk about “identity politics” as it is only Blacks, trans persons, etc. But we all identify with various groups and ideas, even if we don’t think we do. People are social. They belong to groups and identify with others like themselves.

    It drives more of politics than we (especially people who think politics ought to be about rational policy assessment) than we would like to be the case (as do emotions).’

    Vaccinated has become an identity, as has anti-vax, pro-maks, anti-mask and likewise (so forth, and so on). It is why evidence doesn’t change people’s minds.

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  14. steve says:

    I do understand wanting to have this over. I truly want that. I miss life being normal. I agree that it is hard to know when to stop with precautions. So I don’t have that much of an issue with people who want to go back to normal, as long as they at least acknowledge that they are, as James notes, accepting more risk. I dont like that they are denying that and also doing their best to stop others who would prefer to not take those risks from trying to mitigate them.

    I also think that Tavernise is correct. This has all morphed into a tribal issue. If you reject some of the tenets of your tribe you risk banishment. So you could hate immigrants, want to cut govt spending and taxes by 50%, send gays to hell and keep the colored folk down on the farm ie the perfect conservative, but if you think based on the literature that masks help and vaccines are safe you risk losing your tribe, your friends, your family. It’s just bizarre. I keep telling myself that surely people arent so stupid that they actually believe that some guy saying “I treated 50 pts with this supplement and none of them died from Covid” counts as scientific evidence of anything.

    I think that I have mostly decided that there really are some people that ignorant or stupid but it is mostly emotional. They cant give up that righteous anger of knowing they are right and the others are wrong. (There really is way too much anger tied up in this.) They cant/wont risk losing their social support system.

    Steve

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  15. Mu Yixiao says:

    Interestingly, I can’t think of a single “identity group” that I belong to other than those which are genetic (straight white male)–and I don’t really “identify” with them in an “us vs. them” way. They’re just what I happen to be by chance.

    * I don’t follow any religion, but don’t mind those that do.
    * I’m not a member of any political party, and can see good and bad in most of the big ones.
    * I don’t follow any ideology or moral philosophy (isms).
    * I’m not in any clubs or on any teams.
    * I’m “rural” by choice, but I’ve lived in several big cities, and can certainly see the attraction for others.

    While someone may be able to point out that I’m part of some group that others set their identity by, I don’t. In fact, I’ve said for decades that I refuse to be part of any “ism” or identity group–because once you do that, the group decides how the world sees you. And if the group decides that X is good and Y is bad, then your personal opinion is meaningless; the group decides.

    You can see this in feminism–where old-school feminists are distancing themselves from the new radical feminists (and often failing).

    Which, while I understand the psychology behind it all, still makes me think all of this tribal crap is quite silly.

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  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Well, if we’re getting into personal history, I spent 22 years going to sleep every night expecting a loud, insistent knock on the door and a one-way flight to San Quentin. (in coach!) Half of that time I spent broke AF waiting tables and cleaning toilets, leaving town any time my employer noticed by SSN wasn’t quite right; the second half I spent writing tendentious restaurant reviews under one name while managing a restaurant under another name, and becoming an internationally bestselling author, and having a preemie kid who, to this day, has a surname that was one of my aliases.

    It is certainly true that being a natural hermit, financially secure and in a solid relationship has allowed me to cruise through this pandemic without too much worry. But my wife and I are both over 65, and we have a trans daughter who entertains herself confronting cops in street demonstrations, and a Chinese daughter who works in a grocery store with the diseased and occasionally racist public. And one parent and one in-law, both with dementia. Insulated, yes, but not entirely.

    It’s useful to bear in mind that on any given day the entire population of, say, Haiti or Yemen soldiers on while carrying more stress than just about anyone in the US of A. And they also have Covid.

    I’d say people should man up, but since it seems men are the ones cracking hardest under pressure, maybe they should woman-up.

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  17. mattbernius says:

    I think what would be helpful for this discussion is to actually use a clinical definition of trauma. The one that I and the trauma-treatment groups I work with prefer is:

    Trauma is a response to anything that’s overwhelming, that happens too much, too fast, too soon, to too long. It is coupled with a lack of protection or support (especially in processing and integrating the experience). It lives in the body, stored as sensation: pain or tension – or is a lack of sensation, like numbness. It does not impact us all in the same way.

    It’s also important to note that there are many different forms of trauma and mechanisms for the formation of trauma.

    This formulation is via my friend and mentor Rachael Dietkus and is based on the work of Karine Bell, Bessel van der Kolk, and Resmaa Menakem, among others.

    Trauma is also deeply cultural and related to what someone is prepared to experience. So to go back to the pioneers, the reality is that (1) a lot of them experienced and suffered from the impacts of trauma, and (2) the ones that didn’t were better prepared for what they were going to experience. When they experienced things that were outside of those expectations, then the chances of traumatized greatly increased.

    What often creates the deepest trauma experiences (or retraumatization) are when people experience the unexpected.

    The promise of middle-class life was a certain degree of protection from traumatizing experiences. That, of course, was a lie we told ourselves. And Covid is one example of why that was a lie. This gets to Steven’s point:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I mean, just people with school-age children trying to home-school and work from home at the same time for months on end while worrying about everyone getting sick is no small thing. Add onto that the fact that a lot of jobs were threatened and friends and family getting sick and other factors and you get a pretty significant level of social stress.

    So yes, based on a clinical understanding of trauma, we are as a whole a traumatized nation.

    What’s also important to note is that trauma is a deeply individual experience and comparing one’s self to others is a really dangerous thing to do from a mental and emotional health perspective and minimizing one’s own experience can actually make trauma reactions worse (and prevents healing and the development of tools to assist with resilience and processing).

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  18. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    Stress is relative, and I think there is a pretty good argument to be made that while what MR says is absolutely historically accurate, the simple fact is the vast majority of the first world population hasn’t had to deal with those sorts of difficulties for generations. It’s not part of our experience and thus we (as a general rule) don’t know how to react and fall back on emotional and tribal responses. More sarcastically, you could say we aren’t as “tough” as our forebears, though I do honestly think it’s mostly a lack of experience (and that’s a GOOD thing–most of us live in a pretty damn awesome world, compared to the 3rd world today and almost anyone historically). We our way outside our comfort zones at the moment, and it doesn’t really matter if that comfort zone is a lot easier (in general) than our ancestors had to deal with.

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  19. mattbernius says:

    @Just Another Ex-Republican:
    100% what you wrote.

    Two other points:

    1. Survivor bias plays a key role in our understanding of the past–history tends to be written (at least initially) by those who lived to tell the tale. So the stories of people who “broke” under the pressure are rarely emphasized in the first draft (or are used to make the survivors seem even greater).

    2. Just because someone experiences trauma, it doesn’t make them non-functional. However, there are long-term physical, psychological. and emotional impacts of trauma. And when people are placed under stress in the future, those impacts and any related trauma-coping mechanisms will come back into play (which is why childhood trauma is especially important to deal with ASAP).

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  20. Michael Reynolds says:

    @mattbernius:
    I heard a story once, probably apocryphal, of a day in the Senate when something very stressful was happening and there were many dire speeches, and Bob Dole (WW2, blowed up real good) and Bob Kerrey (Vietnam-era SEAL, MoH) and John McCain (Vietnam POW and torture victim) exchanged a droll look at the panicky histrionics.

    If two years partial isolation with nothing but a billion hours of TV to amuse you, Amazon ready to bring you whatever you need, and a death rate of ~1.5% from a disease almost entirely confined to the elderly, and to which we had effective vaccines within a year, is trauma, I think maybe we’re being a wee bit over-broad in our definition of that word. It is certainly irritating and frustrating but it isn’t a freezing sod hut in Nebraska with your kids dying of tuberculosis, your animals starving and Indians shooting arrows at you, now is it?

    What you call trauma the human race, for 99% of its existence called, ‘life.’

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  21. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    Being part of some ‘group identity’ is normal and pervasive. what distinguishes you from identitarians (a term I’m using more broadly than the dictionary definition), is your openness and acceptance to those who are outside your ‘group.’ Group identity in and of itself isn’t bad, where it crosses from a neutral observation to a social negative is when it is used to measure worth, offer privilege and opportunity to participate in public life.

    We tend to view this as a social disease of the right, but there are plenty of people on the right who are just as closed minded.

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  22. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @mattbernius: Absolutely. Being my elderly mother’s sole caregiver while maintaining the house and a full time job, and dealing with my own physical and mental health issues, was challenging when I was able to go to the pool and the gym and to take long weekends away every once in a while and to meet friends for dinner once every couple of weeks.

    Now it’s just unrelentingly overwhelming with no perceived end in sight. Even in my talk therapy sessions, I feel like I’m just having the same conversation over and over again with no ability to move forward because the problems simply have no solution beyond waiting for enough of the COVID deniers to kill themselves off.

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  23. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Group identity in and of itself isn’t bad, where it crosses from a neutral observation to a social negative is when it is used to measure worth, offer privilege and opportunity to participate in public life.

    In theory, sure. In reality, no. Every religious identity ever has been in conflict with every other religious identity, ever, forever. Ditto race identity. Ditto sexual identity. Ditto political, ideological, geographical, linguistic, age, diet identities. You name it, as soon as we start placing ourselves within parentheses and defining ourselves as anything but ourselves, we have conflict. Individuals may be rotten bastards but individuals by themselves do not cause pogroms, war, slavery, ethnic cleansing or genocide. For those lovely things you have to start with group identity.

    Group identity is a necessary precondition for most of the world’s anthropogenic miseries.

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  24. matt bernius says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    What you call trauma the human race, for 99% of its existence called, ‘life.’

    Remember how I mentioned that under stress past trauma coping mechanisms come back to the surface? One of those mechanisms can be increasingly becoming a condescending know-it-all asshole whe repeatedly shits on other people’s hard-earned expertise when they express opinions that one disagrees with.

    This is also known as the “fight” reaction (as in “fight/flight/freeze”). And it’s striking how much, over the course of the last two years you increasingly resort to this in most comment threads Michael. Perhaps it might… just might… have to do with the way you processed all those years on the run Michael… and the way you are processing how C19, the general political climate, and changes within the Young Adult Lit space have affected you.

    But what the fuck do I know, I’ve just been doing an intensive study of Trauma for the last few years under experts.

    BTW, how did you write a World War II book series without actually having been in the war? I mean, you can’t learn about something if you didn’t experience the exact experiences of soldiers?

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  25. Scott F. says:

    To my mind, the kind and scale of the trauma is immaterial. It’s the depth and breadth of our national political identity crisis that really matters.

    The pandemic was merely the catalyst that has activated the volatile mixture of race, sex, and class chemistry that have divided our country for decades. Trump stirred the brew and the necessary civic responses to the pandemic set-off the reaction.

    I think Mr. Waddell has it right. There‘s going to be an explosion. The open questions are when and how big will the blast be.

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  26. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @steve:

    I keep telling myself that surely people arent so stupid that they actually believe that some guy saying “I treated 50 pts with this supplement and none of them died from Covid” counts as scientific evidence of anything.

    I’d like to believe that, too; then I remember all the people across the spectrum for whom the plural of “anecdote” is “data,” and get sad again.

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  27. Michael Reynolds says:

    @matt bernius:

    One of those mechanisms can be increasingly becoming a condescending know-it-all asshole whe repeatedly shits on other people’s hard-earned expertise when they express opinions that one disagrees with.

    Yes, Matt, I do regularly question experts.

    Couple years ago I got into a big fight within kidlit over trigger warnings. All the experts at the time agreed: gotta have trigger warnings so no one is triggered. My position was: bullshit. First, it’s impractical and unworkable and in any event does nothing to help people cope with trauma. Oh, I got so canceled! And a couple years later someone does a meta-study which concluded that trigger warnings not only don’t help, there may even be some admittedly small degree of harm in that those warnings reinforce the trauma.

    Sometimes the ‘experts’ are wrong. And sometimes I’m wrong. But I don’t consider the experts to be arrogant assholes for being wrong, when they’re wrong I just think they’re wrong.

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  28. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Aw geez… Michael is on the jazz again.

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  29. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Group identity is universal and many, if not most groups have achieved minimal friction in relations when groups touch, which pretty much is a working definition of civilized. Given that humans are herd animals, they can be ( at times, easily) led astray and have their natural cautiousness about an out group turned into something pernicious.

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  30. Michael Reynolds says:

    @matt bernius:
    Let me propose an example of a thing which should be terribly stressful and if endured over a long period of time should be traumatic.

    Imagine a person who is required to personally control a four thousand pound object that moves at 70 miles an hour while surrounded by other similar objects moving at that same speed, in circumstances where three seconds’ inattention can result in a horrific death for you and your family. Imagine being subjected to that for hours every day for years and years.

    So, why is driving on the 101 not a traumatizing experience? Because we simply don’t define it that way. Objectively it’s terrifying. I mean, damn, half the people around you are drunks or idiots. Yet, in reality, for most people, it’s just another day.

    I’m not denying the existence of stress or trauma, but I’m sorry, I set the bar a little higher than three needles, a mask and fewer nights out in your favorite bar. If this is what it takes to break people WTF are we going to do when the next pandemic is ebola, or we spot an asteroid coming at us? This is learned helplessness.

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  31. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Group identity is universal and many, if not most groups have achieved minimal friction in relations when groups touch,

    My ‘group identity’ as Jewish suggests a somewhat different perspective.

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  32. dazedandconfused says:

    With. Without. And who’ll deny it’s what the fighting’s all about?

    Somebody find a revolt against one’s own government coming from a prosperous people.

    Read about half of the 1/6 mob had suffered significant financial troubles. They have been given a lot of scapegoats for that. “The government is giving all your money to black people!” The Mexican immigrants took it!” Liberals shipped your jobs overseas because they want you to be poorer!”

    People will rally around most anything if they want to rally, and those who wish to exploit them will provide symbols and totems to rally around. Those tend to be misleading. Does anyone still believe the Tea Party was actually outraged over deficit spending? There will be people who reply: “That’s what they said! We asked them!”

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  33. Gustopher says:

    Layer that onto other recent national crises — including race-driven social unrest,

    “Let’s Go Brandon” did start at a race, but I wouldn’t call it social unrest…

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  34. Gustopher says:

    @CSK:

    I could be wrong–I often am–but the refusal to wear masks and get vaccinated and boosted has become not just a symbol of the divide but the most visible, aggressive way for True American Patriots to demonstrate their refusal to be cowed by liberals bent on turning this country into a Communist hellhole.

    Refusing testing is coming next as the War For Covid continues.

    Scrolling through Twitter, there are lots of people (like, mostly actual people who have been there for years) complaining about their conservative relatives who balked at testing before getting together over the holidays because “I’m healthy” and shit like that. And swarms of less-well established accounts and right wing trolls attacking them about how they are living in fear, and presuming people are guilty of having a virus with no evidence, testing mandates for Christmas, and other bullshit.

    Twitter isn’t the real world, but it can show what the extremists are thinking. And the extremists on the right get mainstreamed with disturbing regularity.

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  35. Gustopher says:

    @Just Another Ex-Republican:

    Stress is relative, and I think there is a pretty good argument to be made that […] the simple fact is the vast majority of the first world population hasn’t had to deal with those sorts of difficulties for generations. It’s not part of our experience and thus we (as a general rule) don’t know how to react and fall back on emotional and tribal responses. […] We are way outside our comfort zones at the moment, and it doesn’t really matter if that comfort zone is a lot easier (in general) than our ancestors had to deal with.

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that people who felt their way of life was under attack before — rural, white men and the women who love them — feel their way of life is under attack because of covid restrictions and public health requirements, and are very resentful of it and want to ignore the risks and go on as if this was nothing.

    The economic stresses on small towns, the loss of privilege, and now being told that they have to comply with seemingly random requirements like wearing a mask and getting vaccinated — it all adds up. These are not mentally healthy people.

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  36. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Driving is a perfect counter-example of human irrationality about risk. It’s common, it’s routine, way more dangerous than flying, and we don’t even care because it’s FAMILIAR.

    The last 5 years (for the left, longer for the right) have shoved a lot of people into unfamiliar places, and we as a species don’t react to that very well.

    Disclaimer: I’m not saying the unfamiliar is bad–sometimes, like a Black President–it’s pretty darn good. My claim is limited to simply pointing out that we as a species don’t function very smartly outside our comfort zone (there are always individual exceptions, congrats if you’re one of them), and it makes no difference (even though it arguably should) whether that comfort zone is a pandemic with vaccines available, or being a POW. I will happily add that *leadership* is a critical component of how the public will handle being outside their comfort zone and, well…that’s not a strength of our current and recent past members of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. We’ve elected (and appointed) pygmies when we needed giants.

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  37. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    @Gustopher: One of my less popular cynicisms among my left-wing friends is that “When it comes to civil rights, it’s the economy, stupid.” People who are comfortable and secure are prepared to be more tolerant. People who aren’t secure and who are scared about it don’t have the energy to spare for other people’s problems. And if you aren’t among the top 10% or so of the modern American society your relative economic position has been slipping for decades. Even most of the 10% is basically just keeping up (a group I am fortunate enough to be in). The wealth concentration among the top 1% and top .01% since the 80’s is staggering (I’m assuming most of this audience is at least roughly familiar with Pinketty’s work).

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  38. CSK says:

    @Just Another Ex-Republican:
    Yes. People who think they’ve worked hard, done everything right, and still feel that they’ve been screwed by life seldom harbor warm feelings toward those they believe do nothing and get everything for free.

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  39. Slugger says:

    About twenty years ago, I read The 900 Days of Leningrad </em by Harrison Salisbury that recounts the World War II siege. I thought then that we Americans would last about 90 days under such hardships. Now my estimate is 19 days.
    Religion has failed us. Rather than building gratitude for the gifts we have, we use it as a wedge issue to get political advantage.

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  40. Kathy says:

    Consider the long-term constant stress of keeping safe from the trump disease, while having to show up for work every day for the past 21 months. Of having to work with people who may or may not wear masks, and may or may not wear them right, plus a lot that just plain don’t wear them. Of holding in person meetings from time to time. of having to go to the bank two or three times a month for petty cash funds. Of having people coming in and out of the office all day long. Of not even working from home because the boss, who got to spend time in an ICU with acute COVID, doesn’t think it’s necessary. All this, and a few other things, without even the protection of a vaccine for 156 of those months.

    All that causes its own kind of damage.

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  41. Kathy says:

    @Kathy:

    The next to last line should read 15 months.

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  42. Mikey says:

    @Kathy:

    The next to last line should read 15 months.

    It only felt like 156 months.

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  43. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Being a loner and never quite fitting in for my entire life seems to have prepared me rather well for this. It’s not that I don’t run the full gamut of emotions noted above, just that I’m used to it.

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  44. Mu Yixiao says:

    CDC Shortens recommended quarantine time.

    U.S. health officials on Monday cut isolation restrictions for Americans who catch the coronavirus from 10 to five days, and similarly shortened the time that close contacts need to quarantine.

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  45. Kathy says:

    @Mikey:

    There are time when it feels like we’re in the 10th year of the pandemic, not just a few weeks short of starting the third. And then there are other times when it feels astonishing we’ve been living with this for so long.

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  46. wr says:

    @Just Another Ex-Republican: “One of my less popular cynicisms among my left-wing friends is that “When it comes to civil rights, it’s the economy, stupid.”

    This is the essence of Brecht, although the accusation is levelled at the left instead of his usual targets:

    You gentlemen who think you have a mission
    To purge us of the seven deadly sins
    Should first sort out the basic food position
    Then start your preaching, that’s where it begins
    You lot who preach restraint and watch your waist as well
    Should learn, for once, the way the world is run
    However much you twist or whatever lies that you tell
    Food is the first thing, morals follow on
    So first make sure that those who are now starving
    Get proper helpings when we all start carving
    What keeps mankind alive?

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  47. Jax says:

    @Kathy: Remember when we used to just….go do stuff? See concert tickets, buy them, get in the car or on a plane and go? No worries, all footloose and fancy-free? Seems like forever ago, and yet just yesterday. Now we have to strategically plan the risk/reward of grocery shopping or going to see Grandma.

    Speaking of grandparents…..my Dad is sick. Severe head cold, high fever, coughing. He’s the only one among us unvaccinated. Chances of getting him in for a Covid test are slim to none.

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  48. Kathy says:

    @Jax:

    I’ve found I can more easily fix a timeline in my mind by charting some major events in order. I do this even when my vacation ends and I want to know where the hell the time went.

    Sorry to hear about your dad. Test or no test, if you can get him and antibody infusion, do it.

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  49. Jax says:

    @Kathy: I don’t even know where to go to get him some. I don’t think we have any at our local clinic. Maybe Jackson Hole or Utah? I’ll see how he is in the morning. My Mom actually got him to take aspirin today, so we got that going for us. 😐

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  50. Monala says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: yes… and no. When I read the post, I thought, “I’ve been through STRESS! Yet I can’t imagine taking it out on other people in public.” I lost my husband after his prolonged illness 3 years ago, and we lost our home and all our possessions to a fire a year ago. We were homeless for a month, our dog was badly injured in the fire, and I’m now dealing with such serious health issues that I’ve had to stop working. And now, despite how careful we’ve been with getting vaxxed, boosted, and wearing masks, my daughter and I both have COVID, likely due to an unvaccinated classmate of my daughter’s.

    And yet… I still can’t imagine taking it out on other people, or not trying my best to not contribute to the current era’s negativity.

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  51. Gustopher says:

    @Monala:

    [snip: summary of tales of woe] And yet… I still can’t imagine taking it out on other people, or not trying my best to not contribute to the current era’s negativity.

    I can see snapping at people, but I cannot see taking pride in snapping at people, or making that part of my identity. I’m just not good at feeling bad.

    About a year or two ago, about 6 months into the pandemic, someone in my online meditation group interrupted us sitting quietly on zoom to ask “why am I crying?”

    To which I responded “because life has been really awful, and you’re just pushing it inside until it finally comes out.”

    And someone else asked, laughing, “why aren’t we all crying?”

    Good times. Everyone trying to pretend they’re fine until they can’t anymore. I mean, I’m fine, but everyone else is basically a basket case as soon as they get the breathing space to be a basket case.

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  52. JohnMcC says:

    @Monala: Day-am…
    Ma’am, you have my admiration and my heart in friendship. Y’ever wonder whether anyone gives a damn, yep, I do. Keep us up on how thing go for you, OK?

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  53. Monala says:

    @JohnMcC: thank you, I appreciate that!

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  54. Kathy says:

    @Jax:

    I hope he recovers.

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  55. Kathy says:

    @Monala:
    @Gustopher:

    I do tend to snap at people when I’m stressed and they keep interrupting me. This is a particular situation at work. I have a gargantuan task, like typing in the brands and contents and prices of 500 products or so, and just as I’m getting into the rhythm of it someone interrupts with some inane or time-wasting matter.

    A favorite is “has customer X uploaded the file yet?” The system to look that up can be freely accessed on the web, and everyone has access to the passwords. In the time they walk over and ask me, they could have checked for themselves twice.

    Besides, I keep checking for those files, interrupting myself every 15 or 30 minutes. When it’s uploaded, I put it in the file server and let it be known.

    Maybe I should tell no one and encrypt the files after putting them in the wrong folder 😉

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  56. Gustopher says:

    @Jax: One of my biggest fears in life is that I will get some disease that requires me to navigate a complex bureaucracy to get treatment. Just getting my flu vaccine was hard because my pharmacy is being taken over by another pharmacy and screwed up everything, the next pharmacy I tried wouldn’t take my insurance, etc. On the fourth attempt, I paid $46 out of pocket, after waiting an hour, despite having an appointment and despite my insurance covering getting prescriptions there.

    (Covid vaccine was easier because the state is covering it for all the unvaccinated, so some of my tax dollars went into paying for my inability to navigate which pharmacies are really contracted with my insurer to be able to stab me with a needle vs hand me pills.)

    I hope your father is doing dramatically better soon, and that the bureaucratic hassles all break in your favor. (And if he is of the Ivermectin bent, maybe get him something that gives him a glossy coat and mane while he’s at it 😉 )

    @Monala: And I hope you and your kid are doing good soon. You need a break from being the subject of tales of woe.

    (Apparently 0.5% of Seattle tested positive for covid in the last 7 days, and the daily counts are still skyrocketing. Part of me thinks I should just go to a bar and get it over with.)

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  57. Jax says:

    @Kathy: It will be a choice he made his own damn self if he doesn’t. Whaddayagonnado? (shrugs) I love him, but this was the actual choice he made.

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  58. Matt Bernius says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Imagine a person who is required to personally control a four thousand pound object that moves at 70 miles an hour while surrounded by other similar objects moving at that same speed, in circumstances where three seconds’ inattention can result in a horrific death for you and your family. Imagine being subjected to that for hours every day for years and years.

    So, why is driving on the 101 not a traumatizing experience? Because we simply don’t define it that way.

    It’s more than “because we don’t define it that way.” It’s also because the teaching process for driving doesn’t start with someone going 70 miles an hour on the thruway. It typically starts going really, really, slowly in a parking lot with no one else around.

    Again, this is accounted for in the trauma model I shared above.

    Trauma is a response to anything that’s overwhelming, that happens too much, too fast, too soon, to too long. It is coupled with a lack of protection or support (especially in processing and integrating the experience). It lives in the body, stored as sensation: pain or tension – or is a lack of sensation, like numbness. It does not impact us all in the same way.

    Stress by itself, in the accepted model of trauma, doesn’t create trauma by itself. It’s the entire lack of processing. Hence why, using your metaphor, dropping someone who has never driven a car before on a thruway will most likely lead to the internalization of the experience as trauma, whereas having someone who has been practicing and building up to that experience most likely won’t.

    These concepts have been accounted for by the experts who have developed this framework over years.

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Yes, Matt, I do regularly question experts.

    [Anecdote about trigger warnings]

    Sometimes the ‘experts’ are wrong. And sometimes I’m wrong. But I don’t consider the experts to be arrogant assholes for being wrong, when they’re wrong I just think they’re wrong.

    Michael, on the topic of trauma, I’m having a hard time seeing how you are different than JKB on the topic of Covid and vaccines.

    The definition and understanding of Trauma I am using is not my own. It’s over a decade old, based on pioneering work by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). It’s based on a lot (decades) of research and applied work with patients. It’s literally been adopted by almost all major medical. psychological, therapeutic, and social work organizations. It’s been rigorously reviewed by countless experts. It’s being used to redesign architecture and service delivery across medical systems.

    So on the one side, I have that and on the other side I have a smart guy on the internet (and without a doubt, you are definitely that) saying “all that is wrong because it doesn’t match my personal perspectives on the subject.” That’s where the arrogance comes in. Which, again, is not unlike JKB and the topic of COVID. And I’m pretty sure you’ve levied a lot of worse judgments on his rejection of expert consensus than “arrogant.”

    Likewise, how is your position all that different than all of the internet experts who still want to argue, in the face of lots of research and evidence, that climate change isn’t happening due to a single data point (not unlike your trigger warning story).

    As for the “asshole” part, I was in a bit of a mood yesterday. But you’ve often applied that to your mode of argumentation (though usually with “cantankerous” which I should have included as well).

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  59. Matt Bernius says:

    @wr:
    Wow, did not expect to be seeing Brecht this early in the morning. Bravo!

    And yes, good old Bert often had as much disdain for the left as he did for the right.

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  60. Matt Bernius says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I’m not denying the existence of stress or trauma, but I’m sorry, I set the bar a little higher than three needles, a mask and fewer nights out in your favorite bar. If this is what it takes to break people WTF are we going to do when the next pandemic is ebola, or we spot an asteroid coming at us? This is learned helplessness.

    Also, in an effort to find a place of agreement… I am completely am aligned with you that this shouldn’t create trauma. And neither would the experts I’m talking about.

    I also think that there are a lot of folks for whom the fallout from C-19 has been much, much worse.

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  61. grumpy realist says:

    We’re skyrocketing with Covid here in Illinois. Whenever I get annoyed at the masking and the immunisations, I remember my parents, both of whom had to deal with things like the aftereffects from German measles and polio, and my relatives, one of who suffered severe brain damage from a “childhood illness.”

    We don’t know how good we have it, and people who refuse vaccinations for anything besides sound medical reasons should be shoved to the back of any line for treatment–if they get treated at all. They don’t believe in medicine enough to get vaccinated; why should they obtain any further benefits?

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  62. Matt Bernius says:

    Hey Michael,

    After a day of reflecting on our exchange–thanks ADHD related hyperfocus–I realized that I failed to ask an important clarifying question: is your issue with the SAMHSA trauma framework I’m describing OR the fact that said framework gets applied too broadly (i.e. something I said in the first post: “So yes, based on a clinical understanding of trauma, we are as a whole a traumatized nation.”).

    Assuming the answer is closer to 2 rather than one, I want to admit that I was probably too broad in that above statement. While I think there is a lot of trauma out there, on reading it again, my statement was arguably too broad. Accurately using language around this topic can be really difficult.

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  63. @Monala: I am very sorry to hear about all of that and I hope the coming new year is better for you and your daughter.

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  64. @EddieInCA:

    While there is no doubt that there are stressors directly related to the pandemic, the simple fact remains that we, as a country, and as a world, will never beat the virus unless everyone, literally, everyone buys into the idea that the only way to get rid of it is to get vaccinated.

    Sure. Did I say or imply otherwise?

    All I was saying was that it is not, in my view, unreasonable to say that there has been significant social fallout (that has not affected everyone the same).

    Maybe I misspoke above?

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  65. @Michael Reynolds: One thing is for certain, Michael, we were all unaware of your bio 😉

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  66. @Michael Reynolds:

    I set the bar a little higher than three needles, a mask and fewer nights out in your favorite bar.

    Well, indeed. Do you think that was what I was arguing? (Or, really, that anyone was arguing that?).

    To be clear: over 800,000 people have died and hundreds of thousands more have been sick (many seriously). Jobs have been disrupted, businesses damaged, educations derailed, and, indeed, a host of social and economic activities have been disrupted–going on two years now.

    For some of us, that has been not that big of a deal, but for others it has.

    Why is it so hard for you to give a little in these interchanges?

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