‘That Snake Is in Your Life’: Trauma’s Enduring Impact


What happened to you?

Among the many arguments made against the standard biomedical paradigm of mental health, that single question — an acknowledgment of life, and a rejoinder to “what’s wrong with you?” — speaks volumes. What happens to us shapes us as we move through life, and the earlier it happens, the more profoundly we’re affected. 

As a rash of studies and stories in recent weeks illustrate, the impact of trauma cannot be overemphasized. One study, described on Mad in the UK, reveals “how traumatic occurrences, especially those rooted in childhood interpersonal victimization, are not just correlated with but might play a causal role in the emergence and persistence of psychosis” and lays out the superiority of non-drug therapies in addressing them. In a piece for Mad in America, Allan Leventhal unpacks that and similar research showing the effects of poverty, violence, workplace stress and other factors on our mental and emotional states.

Further, a recent story on NBCWashington.com addresses the role of gun violence and the lingering role of grief on youths; and a piece published by The Guardian looks at the ongoing trauma faced by children affected by the Maui wildfires. 

As all such stories underscore, what happened to people in many cases happens to them still. The question itself, normally asked in the past tense, lives in the present for those who suffer traumatic experiences that repeat and endure. 

In an interview with NPR, clinical psychologist Zlatina Kostova uses this analogy: 

“Let’s imagine that you are really afraid of a snake,” she says, “and all of the sudden you see a big snake jumping right in front of you. And what is happening in that moment is that because our brains are wired to protect us, our brains will start releasing some specific hormones, like adrenaline or cortisol, that will activate our body.”

But living with persistent, recurrent trauma means the brain is in perpetual go-mode. It means “that snake is in your life. . . . that snake is in our homes, which is what is happening now with children who are living in countries that are affected by a war with the constant atrocities and sense of unpredictability and threats around them.” 

The only surprising thing about any of this is the reluctance, in mainstream conversations, to acknowledge both the trauma itself and the effects of addressing it with something besides drugs. As a culture, we’re so stuck on the idea of “disorders” and magic pills to correct them that we tend to ignore the most powerful and obvious of factors — as well as the solutions that would help, whether therapy or something even more basic. Cash payments for families in poverty, for instance, has been shown to boost children’s mental health over the long term.

Perhaps there’s a reluctance to acknowledge our own trauma. And perhaps such solutions seem too simple, too obvious, to a society and a psychiatric establishment married to the contrived complexity of the DSM’s disorders and pharma’s many treatments. What happened to us, in this case: We were duped into believing that something’s wrong with us. But our humanity tells a different story, if we listen. 

—Amy Biancolli, Family Editor 

[email protected]


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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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