Healing from ambient trauma will require destroying the ideologies and systems that engender harm and in their place cultivating more just and caring ways of living.
CW: discussion of trauma in the general & abstract form (i.e. no specific details), with occasional reference to specific environmental disasters and general events
By Jonathan Fisk
Nobody is doing okay right now. This is the sentiment shared every day across social media and in everyday conversations. Everyone is fraying, breaking down, being swallowed up in a deluge of grief, pain, fear. Our mental health is crumbling and overdoses are skyrocketing.
The main focus of mental health discourse has mostly been on the symptoms—depression, anxiety, fatigue, irritability, loss of focus, and lack of motivation. While managing these symptoms is important, this focus distracts from the roots of what so many people are experiencing and hurting from.
Dominant understandings of trauma tend to focus on events or patterns of great actual or threatened harm, either directly experienced by a person or experienced by a loved one. This depiction, however, fails to reflect the type of trauma underlying much of the current pain people are experiencing. There is power in naming what we are feeling, so here I give name to this under-acknowledged form of trauma.
Ambient trauma is the trauma accumulated in everyday living and the exceptional events that are becoming increasingly everyday. It isn’t necessarily associated with singular events but, rather, is related to pervasive environmental harms and threats, flowing chains of events, and their fated continuance. Ambient trauma might be attached to or exacerbated by specific events directly affecting us or our communities, but it can also be associated with people and lands we have looser relations with—trauma absorbed through understanding the traumas permeating the environments of our times.
There are countless potential sources of ambient trauma: structural racism, police and military violence, the unyielding drainage of capitalism. There are two key sources of ambient trauma, however, that are particularly salient in this moment and exemplify how ambient trauma can quietly consume us—the pandemic and climate apocalypses.
In the last year and a half, we have experienced a global mass death and mass disabling event on a scale most have never been exposed to. All of the death and morbidity of the pandemic are made even more painful by the understanding that things didn’t have to get this bad—that capitalism and colonialism slated the deaths of millions worldwide and likely millions more in the coming years as COVID continues to spread and mutate.
There are countless stories of whole families—parents, grandparents, siblings, and, increasingly, kids—being hospitalized and dying all within days of each other, entire lineages snuffed out in a relative moment in time. Even for those of us lucky enough to be personally spared from such loss, the mere knowledge of this ongoing loss, the amount of pain and death swelling across the globe, brings its own form of pain and trauma.
Concurrent with the extreme loss, the pandemic has disrupted the flow of our lives—healthcare workers, teachers, and restaurant and fast food employees are all leaving their professions en masse to protect their safety and dignity. There is a disintegration of the rituals and gatherings that tied us together—funerals that couldn’t be attended safely, rites of grieving paused indefinitely; weddings held over Zoom instead of with loved ones; months passing without seeing aging family members, nor knowing when it might be safe to do so again, if time will even allow it.
The mass death, the loss of normalcy, the laying bare of how capitalism will sacrifice anyone, particularly disabled people, in order to keep The Economy churning. The pandemic has disturbed our lived realities and our sense of place in the world. An era inundated with everyday traumatic events, so commonplace they become the background noise we trudge through to just make it through the day. The pandemic has left the mental health of virtually no one untouched, unmarked.
A ubiquitous backdrop, particularly within the last few decades, climate apocalypses dot every year with increasing uncertainty and dread as the tragedies grow—Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, record fires in California, a freeze in Texas, floods in Germany, fires in Europe, a collapsing Gulf Stream, a town erased by fires in British Columbia, catastrophic salmon die-offs in the Pacific Northwest.
I use the term climate apocalypses to highlight the cataclysmic nature of things. Although we, as a species, will likely find a way to survive in some fashion, entire communities, lands, and histories have already been claimed by climate apocalypses. On top of the climate changing disastrously, human activities, particularly those wrought by capitalism and colonialism, are leading to severe species extinctions while also quite literally killing off the totality of animals at frightening rates and extents. The environment is dying and contorting in ways that are both unpredictable and imminent for complete collapse.
With such harrowing events and projected worsening, there comes a visceral grief and existential dread. When will my area be next? Will the people and lands I love survive all of this? What am I even doing with my life as the world metaphorically and literally burns around me? Why should I spend my days working an unfulfilling job while the world crumbles?
Ambient trauma is further imparted on us with every news story and disconcerting question related to climate apocalypses. Grave uncertainties shake the very core of what we were told life would be and our promised stability. The pain of knowing how many people and lands—animals, plants, and the very landscapes themselves—have already been lost; the fear of not knowing how much more we will lose and if our names will end up in the tally as well.
In line with mental health discourse, the popular focus has been to treat the apparent symptoms people are experiencing. Managing these often debilitating symptoms is absolutely necessary, but such approaches are ultimately insufficient for full healing as this focus individualizes the underlying roots of these symptoms—rendering the individual as the issue while also making it the individual’s responsibility to fix.
Ambient trauma is rooted in systems much larger than any individual. Taking an individualistic approach to addressing the symptoms will never address the fundamental causes of the harms. The only way to heal is to destroy the systems causing the root harms in the first place.
In Belly of the Beast, Da’Shaun L. Harrison discusses how fully combating anti-fatness means destroying the World as we know it, abolishing and building beyond the ideologies and systems that create and perpetuate anti-Blackness, anti-fatness, and other interconnected violences. This is also true for healing from ambient trauma—true healing will require destroying the ideologies and systems that engender harm and in their place cultivating more just and caring ways of living.
Healing from the ambient trauma of the pandemic would require abolishing the medical industrial complex that bankrupts people seeking medical treatment and prioritizes financial interests over public welfare. Healing from the ambient trauma of climate apocalypses would require uprooting the drivers of climate change, particularly militarism and the dispossession of Indigenous communities and lands. Healing from the ambient trauma born of both roots would require abolishing capitalism, which prioritizes the fiscal wealth of the relative few over the well-being of the masses and the lands. Until these ideologies and systems of harm are addressed at their source and in their totality, the ambient trauma they proliferate will continue to mount and fester, rendering true healing impossible.
While abolishing these systems of harm is necessary, it also requires great time and determined patience. So, what can we do now, in the everyday? First, we need to deeply recognize that people are fizzling out mentally, physically, spiritually. Many people are at or beyond their breaking points; people need to be shown grace, and likewise we need to show ourselves grace.
The Nap Ministry reminds us that grind culture pushes us to pour our energy and livelihoods into capitalism until we run dry. Capitalism encourages and rewards us for “pushing through” ambient trauma in order to remain “productive.” But this is a fallacy; like any other trauma, ambient trauma can’t be overcome by ignoring it and working harder. That will only allow ourselves to be consumed by capitalism as the ambient trauma festers until we break down.
An antithesis to capitalistic grind culture, more than ever we need to allow ourselves and others to rest, grieve, and simply be. Consumerist notions of self-care place the onus on individuals to “heal” so they can remain “productive” members of society—a quiet recognition that the systems around us are not designed to hold us in care.
Instead, self- and community-care in the face of ambient trauma requires cultivating space for people to be less productive and still be provided for, to rest and grieve without worry, to know that they are valued and cared for within their communities. It means investing in our relationships so we can hold each other and be held, care and be cared for—emotionally and materially—understanding that strong, intentional, reciprocal relations are necessary for communal resilience and healing.
Establishing cultures where people are free to rest and grieve won’t be enough to abolish systems of harm and fully heal from ongoing ambient trauma. But, doing so will afford us the necessary respite to survive and cultivate these more liberated futures.
Born and raised in Long Beach, California, Jonathan is a Boricua/Taíno scholar based in Kamōʻiliʻili, Oʻahu, who studies sovereignty in all its forms and the ties between abolition and environmental care & governance. They are in love with the ocean, constantly filled with wonder about the seas, their dynamics, and all the life they host. Jonathan also enjoys cooking whenever they can (especially for others), making custom espresso blends, and studying herbal medicines and communal modes of healing & care.
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