A Little Empathy, Please: We’re All Wounded

We all suffer from some kind of trauma or other— or will eventually, since the rose garden of life contains plenty of thorns. And here’s something that you may find surprising: Some of us may be feeling the effects of trauma experienced by a parent or grandparent, as recent research has shown that trauma can be passed down through the generations.

A study of the DNA of Holocaust survivors and their children showed variations from the norm in both generations for the gene associated with depression and anxiety disorders –an epigenetic change that affects how the gene is turned on and off by other molecules, rather than a change in the gene itself. Other studies have shown that both the survivors and descendants of those who have suffered war, violence, and incessant fear have lower levels of cortisol. Reduced cortisol levels have been linked to increased vulnerability to PTSD. This may seem counter-intuitive, because we think of cortisol as the “fight-or-flight” hormone, but one of the important functions of cortisol is helping the body return to normal after trauma. Not having enough cortisol to completely bring down the sympathetic nervous system, at the time when it is very important for a person to calm down, may partially explain the formation of traumatic memory or generalized triggers. Some of the effects of low cortisol include depression, weakness and fatigue, social anxiety, and emotional hypersensitivity.

This doesn’t come as a surprise to me: I’ve often thought that the suffering my Jewish ancestors faced in Eastern Europe—the forced conscriptions into the tsar’s army, the pogroms, the Holocaust—and particularly, my own father’s experience as a young boy in his shtetl, hiding from the Cossacks hunting down Jews—has led to patterns of anxiety and depression in my family.

How about the history of African Americans? Their ancestors were stolen from their homelands, chained and shipped to the “civilized” world as slaves, then sold to the highest bidder as if they were furniture or bundles of cotton. Those here in the U.S. were then subject to impossibly long hours of work in the fields in the hot and humid South, beatings, rape, and having their families torn apart—wives separated from husbands, children ripped out of their mothers’ arms. Once the slaves were freed, their descendants had to deal with Jim Crow laws and presently face or experience discrimination in the housing and job markets (despite federal laws to the contrary), the incarceration of a disproportionate number of black men and what that does to families (while African Americans make up about 13% of the U.S. population, 37% of prison inmates are African American males), the shooting and killing of unarmed black men by police, who are then acquitted if it even comes to a trial. No wonder, then, that so many African Americans are traumatized. Wouldn’t you be?

Most people think of PTSD something suffered by veterans, those who returned from the World Wars, the Vietnam War, the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan (and by those who have survived a mass shooting, a phenomenon which has become far too common in this country). There’s another form of PTSD that’s less known. It may be that some people you pass on the street and wave at and say, “How are ya?” and who answer, “Fine,” struggle with its symptoms. Those abused or neglected as children, wives abused by husbands, sweatshop workers, concentration camp survivors, survivors of cults or cult-like organizations—many of these individuals suffer from a form of PTSD called complex PTSD, or C-PTSD, which results from prolonged and repeated trauma.

So instead of rushing to judgment and condemning someone whose life experience or family history might be different from yours (or telling Jews to just “get over” the Holocaust, or African Americans to just “get over” slavery), how about pausing and imagining what it would be like to be the person you’re so quick to judge? It’s called empathy, and it’s the ability to imagine we’re walking in someone else’s shoes. It’s sorely lacking today. So how about a bit of empathy? Please?

2 thoughts on “A Little Empathy, Please: We’re All Wounded

    • Thanks, Ellen. Your feedback is much appreciated! BTW, I posted another article on this topic: Can Empathy Save the World? (June 22, 2015). In this post, I include having empathy for the other living beings that share the planet with us.

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