Yesterday I spoke to a young woman whose experience reminded me of a man I met some years ago.
His name was Bob. He travelled extensively with his work and on a particular occasion was in Bogota, the capital of Colombia. At the time Colombia was under siege from various rebel groups. The latter were prepared to use tactics like kidnap and car bombs to achieve their aims of a fairer society.
One lunch time Bob was sitting in a restaurant waiting to meet his contacts. Unknown to anyone in the restaurant a car parked outside had been left the previous night packed with explosives. When the bomb was triggered there was a huge explosion. The restaurant window was blown out and tables upturned. Shards of glass sprayed the diners. Two people were killed. Fortunately, Bob suffered only minor injuries.
Bob returned to the UK. While naturally shaken by what had happened, he was able to return to work after only a short while. He also quickly re-established his usual daily life.
One Sunday six months later it was a perfect sunny day in late summer. The sky was a clear cloudless blue. Bob decided the garden needed his attention. He got down on all fours to weed a flowerbed. Suddenly literally ‘out of the blue’ there was an enormous clap of thunder.
Speaking of it later Bob described how he “went completely to pieces”. He could not understand why he had reacted as he did. He felt shaky for a long time. He was troubled by the thought that ‘it’ might happen again at any time. He was so concerned that two weeks later he went to his GP.
Bob was intelligent and educated but the thought did not occur to him that his reaction to the thunder was connected to his experience in Bogota. This was because he was more focused on what might be ‘wrong’ with him.
The woman I spoke to yesterday had a reaction that was just as much a surprise to her.
She told me that she had bought her son a VR headset for his birthday. The whole family was excited to try the VR experience. However, when she put the headset on, she had to immediately take it off because of how she felt. Some years previously she had been belatedly diagnosed with a benign brain tumour. A year ago, she had undergone gamma knife surgery to reduce the size of the tumour. She explained that this procedure involved having a frame clamped to her head for some hours. In her words putting the VR headset on “took me right back” to having the frame clamped to her head. Like Bob she was concerned about her reaction but less so than Bob. While it was impossible for Bob to avoid sudden thunder and other loud noises, for her avoidance was more straightforward; she simply needed to not put anything tight around her head.
Unlike Bob she immediately recognised the connection between having the VR headset on and her operation However, she was still surprised and perplexed by her reaction.
Anyone experienced in talking to people who have had traumatic experiences does not find it difficult to understand their reactions. During a traumatic experience we are capable of making associations between a sensory aspect of the situation and our fear.
This association or conditioning depends on a level of thinking that is non-verbal and immediate. It is quite different from the rational thinking that we can put into words. Nevertheless, it is part of the mental processing we are capable of and perform in much of what we do. The problem for Bob and the young woman is that our culture does not help us see this is part of the way we think.
At the same time our culture has increasingly become primarily focused on how we feel. It does this with little or no recognition of the different levels of thinking or processing that lie behind our feelings. Feelings have become seen as having significance mainly as symptoms; intense feelings are seen as symptoms of conditions and disorders. This focus is why Bob worried about himself. We should see these worries not as part of individuals’ mental health problem but as a failure of our culture to equip us with ideas that help us understand the full range of ordinary, normal psychological processes that underpin human experience.
The failure of our culture to recognise the importance of thinking in its various forms lies behind much of our suffering.
Many ordinary sensible people develop ‘anxiety problems’. Are they partly simply misled by culture? The Origin of Anxieties describes the very ordinary, normal psychological processes involved. Available from Amazon.co.uk or from Charles Merrett, 12 Erpingham Road, Poole, BH12 1EX £10 + £2 p&p.