The Violence of the Mandate Intensifies the Psychology of Trauma: A View from New Zealand

The Covid crisis has illuminated a number of aspects of human nature—both what you might call our “darker” tendencies, including scapegoating, polarising, dehumanising others and groupthink; and what you might all our more noble qualities, including empathy, kindness, compassion, companionship and courage.

As a psychologist with a long-time interest in trauma and extreme states, I’ve been following this unfolding crisis with a very unsettling combination of awe and horror, inspiration and disappointment. I think of the Chinese symbol for “crisis” being a combination of the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity,” and I’ve been considering that we are finding ourselves metaphorically hurtling down the road, rapidly approaching a fork. One path takes us to rapidly escalating danger and hardship; and the other path takes us into the possibility of a more healthy, just and sustainable society. Which path will we choose?

I’d like to invite you to join me on a little journey, an exploration of the Covid crisis through a lens crafted by an emphasis on human needs and our recent understandings of trauma. As preparation, let’s first take a few moments to define a few concepts that will act as our compass on this journey:

Human needs: The universal “nutrients” that all human beings require to survive and thrive. These relate to our physical, mental, social, spiritual and environmental domains.

Feelings/emotions: Our inner “messengers” (consisting of physical sensations and impulses) that alert us to needs met or unmet, and motivate us to continue meeting our needs the best that we can.

Actions/strategies: Every action that we take—and I mean every action, great or small, consciously or unconsciously—is an attempt to meet needs.

Power is one’s capacity to gather resources to meet needs. Implicit in this definition is that in order to meet needs, we need to (a) be able to gather relatively accurate information, and (b) have enough freedom and sovereignty to be able to carry out actions that will effectively meet our needs.

A traumatic event is any event that we experience as threatening (causes harm to ourselves or loved ones in some way— or in other words, undermines our needs), while at the same time we do not have sufficient power to protect ourselves. Obvious examples of this are being physically or sexually abused/assaulted, and being involved in a threatening/harmful accident or disaster (whether caused naturally or intentionally by others).