Historians' Watch

Traumatic Histories

Content warning: this article contains references to content that some readers may find distressing.

Trauma is ubiquitous in human experience, and in the human past. If you are reading, researching, or studying history at any level, you will eventually be confronted by evidence of past traumas that might affect you emotionally. Indeed, remaining unaffected and at a studious distance from historical subjects may not even be desirable in a field that prioritises empathy, respect, and compassionate imagination. However, there are risks to encountering past lives marked by profound trauma. To do so safely, researchers need to be aware of the ways in which their own mental health can be affected, and to recognise the signs so that they can respond appropriately.

Trauma is commonly divided into ‘Big T’ and ‘Little T’ categorisations. ‘Big T(rauma)’ constitutes the obvious, major events that we often think of when defining traumatic history: wars, genocide, natural disasters, political upheavals, acts of violence and assault including enslavement and colonialism. ‘Little T(rauma)’ may well overlap with these events, but it focuses instead on the distressing personal stories that affect people’s day-to-day experience. ‘Little T(rauma)’ is often cumulative, occurring over a long period of time, and may be missed in our initial assessment of whether trauma was a factor in someone’s life. Poverty and its effects, addiction, family tragedy including abuse and abandonment, sexual and gendered acts of discrimination and violence in the home or workplace, migration, and the outworking of systemic inequalities including racism, sexism, and homophobia, are all ‘Little T(rauma)s’ that have real and profound impacts on people’s wellbeing. When we are working with historical evidence, being alert to the categorisations of trauma can be a compassionate and insightful way to explore the human past. We can simply ask, when encountering an event that falls under the bracket of either ‘Big’ or ‘Little T(rauma)’, ‘how might this have affected my subjects and what came later in their story?’. 

The word ‘trauma’, however, is not actually a definition of the event itself, but rather of the impacts it has on the human nervous system. When trauma is present, the body reacts in a series of relatively predictable ways, which may include fight/flight reactions, fawning (also called please and appease), and freezing. These nervous system states are designed to reduce the reaction time between our thinking brain and survival brain, to move us quickly into embodied responses that will keep us safe, or minimise damage. When we are in these states, the blood flow to our pre-frontal cortex (PFC), where much of our higher reasoning and contextualisation takes place, is reduced in favour of the limbic system and brain stem, our essential life support systems. One notable effect of this is that memories are laid down and stored differently, privileging recall that is associated with strong sensations of fear in order to create a reflexive response in case a similar threat is encountered in future. This is why, after sudden and unexpected tragedies, many people report fragmented memories and gaps in their recall. The legacy of trauma in the body and brain, unless subsequently processed and integrated with the help of a trained practitioner, leaves markers that cause dysregulation in our emotions and physical threat responses when we encounter triggers, those small reminders of a devastating event or experience that tell the brain to go back into a defensive response, even if it isn’t actually necessary.

As historians, we need to be aware that trauma can be triggered simply through encountering evidence of traumatic events and experiences. Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is constantly scanning for cues about our safety in both our environment and our internal world. This process, called ‘neuroception’, does not distinguish between actual threats and thoughts that seem threatening. So, if we see images, hold objects, visit sites, or read and hear accounts of events that cause us to feel upset, disturbed, and afraid, our ANS may respond to protect us from a perceived threat by raising our heart rate and respiration, lowering blood flow to our PFC, and releasing adrenalin and cortisol to get us into a ready reaction state. This effect may be particularly noticeable when undertaking oral history research as the experience can be compounded through mirroring and co-regulating with our subjects’ mood and posture, something that happens naturally between all humans as a part of ensuring group survival. However, researchers working with textual, visual, and material artefacts can also experience traumatic dysregulation and its effects.

Trauma reactions are unique to every individual, depending on a range of factors. Some people may respond incredibly strongly to certain stimuli, whilst others remain unaffected. Two particular forms of trauma response, though, are worth bearing in mind as historians. Generational trauma can be significant when there is a personal connection to the research subject. Trauma can persist for several generations within families, at both an epigenetic and a behavioural level. At a genetic level, experiencing the high stress of trauma can cause changes in the way certain genes are expressed, and these shifts are passed down to subsequent generations. Epigenetically, generational trauma is literally carried and expressed in the body, leaving the marks of previous family members’ suffering in our genetic code. The repeating legacies of trauma are also often revealed and carried in family behaviours and patterns, so that subsequent generations may be affected in their day to day by the presence of their family history. We can also think about the systemic legacies of trauma such as poverty, enslavement, and migration, that are outworked in enduring inequalities affecting subsequent generations. Generational trauma can produce strong reactions to certain historical material related to family suffering; it can also leave a felt legacy of responsibility for carrying the burdens of the past, which can be deeply affecting and even potentially dysregulating when confronted with evidence of enduring inequality.

Even when there is no direct connection to the subject, historians are also at risk of experiencing vicarious trauma.  Initially identified in front line responders, vicarious trauma is a form of empathic burnout, and a result of using precisely the skills we need to be good historians: empathy, imagination, and compassion. Vicarious trauma shows up as a triggering of the nervous system in response to the suffering of others. You might notice your body going from a state of being calm and at rest, to suddenly entering an activated state in which your heart is racing, your vision narrows, it becomes harder to express yourself with language, and you feel anxious or angry. This reaction is the ANS moving you into a state of hyper-alertness to respond to danger, in a way that isn’t appropriate for your actual setting and surroundings. Over time, if these symptoms are regularly and repeatedly experienced, you may move toward burnout, and experience increasing periods of flatness, fatigue, low motivation and creativity, and even cynicism. These responses are due to the dysregulating effects of vicarious trauma.

We rarely discuss caring for our mental health in the research process or when studying the past, but trauma awareness, particularly when dealing with material related to ‘Big’ and ‘Little T(rauma)’, needs to be an essential skill for all historians. Because trauma is experienced first in the body, awareness of our embodied state as we research, with regular breaks to check in and notice sensations, reactions, and physical needs, is a simple but effective way to care for ourselves. Naming what we feel and responding to it can then help to de-escalate the reaction and bring us back into appropriate regulation if we have been triggered. Move away from the source of distress, shake out and move your body to dispel the rush of adrenalin and cortisol, and practice some grounding exercises like breathing slowly and taking a walk outside. As our nervous system responds directly to the presence of others, you may find working with or around researchers who are not being triggered can help to reduce your activation level, as can talking about your distress with colleagues or professionals. 

Ultimately, trauma occurs when we are powerless to protect ourselves from danger, and this may be another reason why historians could be particularly prone to experiencing trauma reactions: as we study the human past, we do so at a distance and without the power to intervene. Perhaps the most powerful way to respond to and dispel trauma from the past may therefore be to engage in activism in the present, releasing our power as agents of change in response to the historical sources we study.

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