Dr. Gabor Maté on the Fear, Trauma and Lessons We Can Learn from Coronavirus
“Society is just a clearing in the forest. It is not real.” ~ Osho
With all of the pandemic chaos circling the globe, a massive wave of fear, anxiety, dread and worry is also taking its toll on the collective consciousness of the human race. Individually, some are processing it better than others, but as a singular group of humanity, we are facing the reality that the world we have created for ourselves is coming undone.
Above and beyond the understandable and practical concerns over an issue as big as this, what we are also seeing is trauma response, according to Canadian physician Dr. Gabor Maté. As the author of the book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, Maté specializes in uncovering the hidden connections between childhood trauma and addiction, and has become one of the world’s leading experts on this complicated subject.
Speaking recently on a podcast with Russel Brand, Maté shares his uniquely helpful insights into why we are feeling the way that we are right now, and what we might hope to learn once this crisis has passed.
Noting that people who suffer childhood trauma and never effectively reconcile it by the time they reach adulthood are more prone to have a high fear response or a high dissociative response, causing them to detach from reality and lose themselves in addiction or other destructive behaviors.
“When you’re traumatized, your brain is affected by that. And particularly if you’re traumatized early in childhood, the fear center in the brain, the amygdala, is much more easily triggered. So that means that people experience things in different ways, depending on how they were programmed in childhood.The response isn’t only to the actual facts and the actual realities of the spreading pandemic, but it’s also a response to people’s own subjectivity and the degree of fear that they are living with all their lives, and the more fear oriented they were in the first place the more likely they are to panic right now.” ~ Dr. Gabor Maté
He talks about how this was already happening in our society at large, well before the pandemic, by referring to what has been called the ‘infodemic.’ That is, information today can spread much more rapidly than any actual disease, and that information alone can trigger this fear response in people. Many people are so absorb in the information aspect of the current crisis that the panic sets in regardless of the actual physical danger they may face.
As a society, though, we are all faced with a never-ending barrage of crises laid on us by mass media, which has traumatized us and taken its toll on our development. Now that we are all faced with a crisis of such magnitude and scale, our panic response is understandable.
He goes on to point out that we are experiencing the reality of something that has been out of sight and out of mind for us for a long time, while people in many parts of the world regularly experience death and epidemics from malnutrition, diarrhea and so on. He notes that many are comparing this to 9/11, which is not important in other parts o the world who’ve seen their countries bombed and destroyed in the ensuing global war on terror.
Furthermore, he notes that we have developed the propensity to ignore other serious conditions, like air pollution, which kill many millions of people every year. This highlights our ability to selectively panic about new, sudden and surprising conditions like the pandemic.
Brand comments on this point:
“Out of sight, out of mind. If something doesn’t penetrate our awareness, or if we can operate without being impeded by it, we’ll happily do so, but I also think that the socio-economic impact of coronavirus has meant that whether or not you’re affected medically or biologically by the condition you are affected psychologically. Also I think it’s tapped into a deep and archetypal fear that we have that we are not in control of reality, because we are not in control of reality… I feel like we can suddenly feel, not just in the botanical world, could the vines and plants reclaim us, but in the microbiological world there are invisible forces that await, that can be unloaded, weaponized at any moment…” ~ Russel Brand
Maté continues, moving on to what we may learn from all of this:
“In the West we’re always saying, ‘panic! panic! everything is out of control.’ But in the Buddhist world they say, relax, everything is out of control.’ So, one of the teachings that maybe we could learn is precisely that. Whether you are a Buddhist or not, just the idea of impermanence, and everything changes and we’re not in control. And How to be with whatever happens, how to be with the present moment regardless of what happens. Every crisis like this, as the Chinese say, a crisis is a combination of danger and opportunity, and so that in the crisis there is always an opporutnity. So, like you I’m wondering, will this perhaps function as a teaching moment for a lot of humanity? I’m not that optimistic that it will, but it’s certainly a possibility, it’s certainly a potential.” ~ Dr. Gabor Maté
He continues, reflecting on the most important personal lessons which many of are already starting to see being revealed in the early stages of this crisis:
“Another thing is, doesn’t it just clarify all your values? Don’t we all at this point realize what’s really important in life? I mean hasn’t that been shocked into us by this pandemic? That all of a sudden things that we thought were so important, mmmm… what is really important? It is a possible learning moment. The question is whether we will take that opportunity or not. And I think the system militates against us doing so. They’ll want us to go back to our ordinary, narrow, individualistic, dissociated, isolated mode of thinking. That’s how the system survives, so whether or not we can transcend that, we’ll see.” ~ Dr. Gabor Maté
Finally, he comments on how healing from trauma takes place in an individual’s life, and therefore on a societal level as well:
“When individuals learn the sources of their problem, and instead of being in denial about it, and getting over the shame of acknowledging their own behavior and their own dysfunctions, and they learn that they didn’t do this deliberately, but that this was a defense, this was a protective, this was a pain-relieving mechanism, and therefore, and if they open themselves humbly… they can actually transform. Well, that would also be true on a social level. What if as a society we actually admitted all our dysfunctions? What if we said, this didn’t work, this doesn’t work, what if we stopped being in denial?” ~ Dr. Gabor Maté
Watch the full conversation here:
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About the Author
Dylan Charles is the editor of Waking Times and host of Battered Souls: A Podcast About Transformation, both dedicated to ideas of personal transformation, societal awakening, and planetary renewal. His personal journey is deeply inspired by shamanic plant medicines and the arts of Kung Fu, Qi Gong and Yoga. After seven years of living in Costa Rica, he now lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where he practices Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and enjoys spending time with family. He has written hundreds of articles, reaching and inspiring millions of people around the world.
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