Many Americans today are not just stressed, they are traumatized, says Elizabeth Stanley, Ph.D., the political scientist arguing the lessons of neurobiology and tools of psychology are needed for a grass-roots, bottom-up improvement to American political life. In her new book Widen the Window, the evidence for this comes from Dr. Stanley’s own personal experience in military and civilian life, the methods she developed working with American military personnel on overcoming their trauma, and the mounting evidence of trauma’s effects on broader society.
This is a time of profound social change when many of us feel our identity groups are being targeted, she says. Evidence of the broad social trauma is America’s growing incivility, creeping distrust, and polarized civic discourse. Some consequences are physiologically – Americans are increasingly obese and suffering from sleep disorders. The US firearm death rate is higher than among its socioeconomic peers, many of them suicides. For three years running, US life expectancy has declined.
The tools Dr. Stanley proposes to address the individual and collective condition are both common sense and grounded in evidence. Reflect on life and be aware of yourself and others, eat healthfully, sleep well, exercise enough, and cultivate friends. She reminds us that we have two brains – a thinking brain that we control and a survival brain that runs on instinct. The thinking brain makes conscious decisions, ethical choices, reasons, and analyzes. The survival brain contains feelings, stresses, habits that play out in involuntary emotions and actions. She wants us to widen the window within which our thinking and survival brains work cooperatively and avoid landing outside the window where thinking and surviving fight against each other.
While stress-coping books are commonplace, Dr. Stanley’s differs by identifying how much of what we call stress – which can be either good or bad– is actually trauma – which is incontrovertibly damaging. Further, she argues that the norms of American society actually promote trauma as normal and necessary for achievement. For America’s military, trauma is built into warrior training, but how to cope with it is not. In her book she shows how these professional and cultural expectations inflict personal pain, how the resulting individual damage converts to collective trauma, narrowing our window to manage and solve society’s problems. However, it can change, and Dr. Stanley calls for it, one person at time.
Widen the window: training your brain and body to thrive during stress and recover from trauma by Elizabeth A. Stanley is published by Avery Press (2019). https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/553620/widen-the-window-by-elizabeth-a-stanley-phd-foreword-by-bessel-van-der-kolk-md/