Limbic Nation

A few weeks ago I was preparing to present for the first time at a national conference in Nashville. In an effort to distract myself from the fear of public speaking, I took the first day of the conference to hear a speaker I have always admired as a pioneer in the field: Bessel Van Der Kolk. Any student writing a research paper on the subject would be hard pressed not to cite his work numerous times. He discussed how a vast amount of Americans today have experienced trauma, over 80%. Some of these individuals are perfectly capable to process these traumatic events, integrate them, heal and move on and continue to live and thrive, about 40% or so he postulated. The other 60 percent or so need more help.

Bessel Van Der Kolk explored how our society, since 9/11, has not been far removed from tragedy and as a result of this he defined us as “the limbic nation.” A people stuck in that primal part of the brain, often reacting more than responding. It seems like every few days we hear of another unthinkable and violent act being committed. In addition, the news and media in general provides little relief. Instead, these tragic events are often simply magnified and sensationalized. A professor of mine once said that media does not have the power to tell you how to think, but it can certainly tell you what to think about…

Despite being the most powerful country in the world, a leader economically and culturally in many respects, it seems we no longer make it very long before another tragedy strikes. Public shootings occur in this country with greater frequency than any other developed nation in the world. Between May 15 and June 15, 2014, there were 4 shooting sprees that occurred. All 4 had a primal and repetitive quality. All 4 made no “sense”, rather they were acts of sad, violent desperation: A man waging war against the women who rejected him, a shooter on a Seattle college campus that reported doing it for, “no reason, really…” A couple with a suicide pact, gunning down police officers in Las Vegas while they were eating lunch, screaming, “this is a revolution!” Most recently, a High School shooting just 30-minutes from where I live in Troutdale, Oregon, and where my cousin was a teacher, just 1-classroom away from the shooter.

I am not writing this to get political. I do not wish to assert that modern wars, or any particular political party are the issue. I am not here to discuss whether gun laws are or are not the answer/problem. What I find myself continuing to ponder is this idea of America as the “Limbic Nation”, thus making us the “Limbic People.” You see, I have lived stuck in the Limbic system and it is not a pleasant place to be, because what also happens is that the frontal cortex, that reasoning brain, goes off-line. The IQ lowers, you are left with impulse and uncontrollable emotions become all-consuming facts!

Trauma can completely distort and shape ones perception of the world. We see the world not as IT is, but as WE are. This is why trauma survivors often replay the same dark scenes from the past over-and-over again. That is their reality. That is their world. So what is it doing to us as a society as a whole, especially when we are continually re-traumatized by new tragedy? Is this our reality now?

Individuals stuck in their Limbic system are the ones who often find their way to The Refuge because their lives begin to unravel- I know that several years ago mine did. But what do we do as a nation? Is there a program for us all? Can we as a people find the courage to stop, breathe, connect, heal and break this cycle? Awareness isn’t enough as awareness alone can easily transform into fear, which ultimately keeps us stuck. We need action, otherwise we are simply engaging in active avoidance, because The Refuge, unfortunately, does not have enough beds for us all.