The somewhat different TIME

The somewhat different TIME
Or: the awakening of a traumatized species

Over the course of human evolution so far, our autonomic nervous system has equipped us with three very different ways of responding to input from our environment. It is time to take full ownership of the most recent one, our ability to cooperate. The global challenges demand that we take the next step towards maturity. In many places, this development is already visible.

(Note: This article is based on an evaluation of the coverage of the German newspaper DIE ZEIT. The original text contains many specific references/quotes from articles published in 2020, which have been omitted in this abridged English translation version).


Much will be written about the year 2020. It is the year of Corona. The year of the caesura. And thus potentially the year of a new beginning. Whether it will actually be is up to us. It depends on our ability to remain committed. And to practice surrender when the large social cycles and the small ones in which we are personally involved as individuals with a limited lifespan, do not want to agree at all, clash, slow us down or seem to offset each other.

For me, something quite unspectacular happened in this remarkable year. After a long period of voluntary abstinence, I became a newspaper reader again. This was brought about by the weekly newspaper “DIE ZEIT”. Increasingly, I found topics taken up in a way that went deeper, looked more holistically and dealt with the issues beneath the agitated polarized surface – simply with a view to our humanity. This encouraged me to also find language for my own perspective and to actively participate in a new discourse that I can open up myself. My impression is that I am not the only one doing this.


From the individual nervous system to the nervous system of our society

This is what I see when I look at the year 2020 : an awakening, a gradual, in some places also explosive revival of connections that were numb, not circulating , asleep in a feeling of powerlessness, resignation or insignificance.

Frozen energy, numbing and collapse are specific features of the oldest mechanism in evolutionary history that our autonomic nervous system provides for us to ensure survival.

These are the three states known to our nervous system, listed in the order of their emergence: dead reflex – fight and flight – cooperative coexistence. Depending on the intensity of the threat, we fall back on the evolutionary – more primitive – “repertoire”. With an increased stress level, it looks like this: social engagement – fight/flight/fawn – freeze! In the case of overpowering or helplessness (a situation is subjectively classified as threatening and there is no possibility of changing anything about it), our body still falls back on the automated functions of our reptilian brain. Mind you, this is an emergency program, our oldest. And the most radical. It increases our chances of survival in the short term. It is not suitable for human “life”.

If we got stuck in the feeling of helplessness as a permanent state, it becomes “life-threatening” in another sense. We see depression, loss of meaning, dwindling empathy, social withdrawal, disinterest and the development of chronic diseases. Burn-out, addiction, suicide have become such commonplace phenomena that they seem to be generally accepted and hardly questioned in our society.

Trauma therapy revives the severed connections, fragmented pieces reunite, the history that was connected to the disrupted or diminished energy flow is examined – via the nervous system – and „rearranged” in the sense of a proper renegotiation.

On the way to this re-ordering we encounter highly explosive material. I like to compare this work with that of a brain surgeon, because it requires the same mastery and precision. The desired result is the restoration of trust. Trust in ourselves and in our perception, from this a possible trust in my partner, and a new trust in the world as a place in which I can participate and shape. The first step out of powerlessness is the return to self-efficacy.

What is true for the individual, we can also observe in society. Language shows it clearly, whether for the seemingly good or the seemingly evil, we are currently in a fight – after playing dead, the second choice from the repertoire of survival modes of our autonomic nervous system. The crisis triggered by Corona naturally activates unconscious collective memories (trauma triggers), which we recognize, among other things, by the fact that some reactions seem so illogical and incomprehensible. They are an expression of undigested shock. Skepticism, mistrust, resistance are the response to manipulation, being overwhelmed, oppression, betrayal and the horrors of war, which have not yet really been dealt with internally and as a society. These memories are not yet “history”, they are alive in our cells.

For me, this was impressively summed up by French President Macron at the beginning of the pandemic with his words “Nous sommes en guerre … L’ennemi est là”. “We are at war.” German headlines also almost habitually headline the “fight” against the virus and speak of efforts to “defeat” it. For all their substantive reflectiveness – politicians, scientists, outraged citizens and the media that report on them prefer to use the language of war. Even if our neo-cortex would like to classify it differently – our nervous systems and the divided nervous system of society are at war.

That may not sound nice. From the perspective of accompanying the process, however, it contains a decisive advantage. Unlike in the case of powerlessness and being overwhelmed, we feel our power and experience possibilities for action, in short the possibility of self-efficacy, which can translate into the movement of fight or flight, but also – and with a little practice more and more – into shared creation. My thesis: this third option, our ability to cooperate, is more than an accidental “nice-to-have” when we get along well or temporarily agree on something. It is increasingly becoming a real alternative to the automated processes of “huddling” or “disappearing”, even in stressful situations, and is quite suitable as a reliable source of security and thus becomes a resource itself!

The opportunity

The new positive togetherness (social engagement) requires navigating the storm (fight/flight), as we awaken from the stupor (freeze) into the very chaos that our nervous system thankfully catapulted us out of when it was “too much”. From this perspective, I see the chaos, the living conflict of opinions and even the breaking down of extremes with the reversion to simplification and polarization, as the possible beginning of a healing process. A healing process in which, as a first step, people rediscover their strength, become visible again, show interest, open their mouths, take their own values seriously, position themselves, become mature, and in the best case, get ready to enter into a relationship and shape it.

That’s huge. And from my point of view, it is worthwhile to first welcome these volcano-like movements, this energy thawing out of collective traumatization, numbness and resignation, as calmly as possible and to rejoice in the empowerment and the reawakening interest in participation and shaping – even if the intensity may frighten us.

In the Corona crisis, three conditions are fulfilled at once that can make the success of a new – trusting – togetherness, such as we are currently seeking, possible.

Firstly, the crisis is global and existential. Thus, beyond all differences, it throws us back to our lowest common denominator, to the essence beyond different cultures and opinions, to that which unites us all: our humanity.

Secondly, for a long time we somehow managed to simply coexist in somehow parallel worlds.

That is over now. The “crisis” and the manifold hardships it causes among the individual groups are bringing to light all the blind and deaf spots, all the hidden, twisted, nicely put let’s-get-along things. Who will next proclaim their contribution to society as system-relevant? And how does the “tribe” react to this? What do we do with those who cannot find a language to speak up for themselves? EVERYONE must join in!

Thirdly: in the crisis, making mistakes is finally allowed again. Being a master in the art of living is no longer a dirty word. The tight corset of practiced social norms does not get us anywhere here. Unconventional ideas and rapid prototyping: trying things out, discarding them again, improving them, developing them further – these are the best characteristics of creativity and play, as we find them in “social engagement,” which is made possible by the evolutionarily most recent part of our nervous system.

Maybe we can see 2020 that way too, Corona and the global crisis bring it to light, our global connectedness, our vulnerability, the deep societal failings that we have somehow got away with so far. Our failure. As in an individual process accompaniment (coaching), the light shines into the most cluttered nooks and crannies, mercilessly holds up a mirror to us and gives us the chance to choose and shape anew. To mature. Humanity is a traumatized species. And maybe that’s not as terrible as it sounds, if we can see trauma as an organic part of life, a natural and sustaining force of human evolution – moving us and getting the next best thing out of us.

My personal headline for this new beginning: we are bringing meaning and depth back into our social lives. What is yours?

Preview for Part 2:

Whether individually in therapy or collectively through crises in society – waking up from being overwhelmed and helpless is an extremely sensitive issue, in one fell swoop all the suppressed survival energy is ready in its highest state of activation. How do we ensure that we do not continue the history of power and powerlessness, of control and oppression, from which we are just breaking free? How do we do justice to the complexity of our society and the ambivalence of life?

You can read this article and others on my Substack publication page annlaforker.substack.com.