I teach TRE® (Tension and Trauma Release Exercise) under license from TRE® for All Inc (David Berceli PhD).  All rights belong to TRE® for All Inc. Visit their website www.traumaprevention.com

  • Susanne Thomas

Survival responses with a view to cultural traditions and conditioned ways of enduring adversity.


Human survival responses were known to all people at all times. An experiential knowledge that was not grounded in science.

Besides the individual need there was also always a collective need to deal with the symptoms in the context of culture, social acceptability - and healing.

Scientific explanation was not available in the past - and still now is only slowly emerging.

Myriads of wrong assumptions and pseudo - scientific explanations have been mixed with cultural and religious belief systems to make up for the urgently needed 'explanation'.

The need for resolving and understanding is a compulsive one, a matter of life or death. It is not a rational choice and largely unconscious. This is true not only for the individual but also for people groups and even nations.

People groups, tribes and nations who share a language and cultural history have always tried to make sense of what they saw and experienced as the symptomatic aftermath of trauma.

There is a wide range of explanations - many of them based in myth and story - that are taught from one generation to the next.

These cultural and religious beliefs have influenced people groups in how they

1) explain the occurrence of trauma

2) make sense of the existence of trauma

3) look at and categorise the symptoms of trauma in survivors

4) treat survivors

It would be a huge task to look at all the different ways people have historically thought about and made sense of trauma and this is not my focus. I am sure that others have looked at this thoroughly and surely there are books and articles to draw from.

I want to take a look at contemporary culture - inviting colleagues around the world to add their voice - to find out

How primal survivals responses and the associated outward behaviour/symptoms in the aftermath of trauma are looked at in cultural and social context NOW

How general rules of behaviour TODAY are related to the acceptance or non-acceptance of a certain range of survival responses and symptomatic behaviour.

How religious and spiritual belief systems TODAY are hindering or supporting people in their effort to transcend individual trauma.

I believe that the way people react at lower levels of stress is a mixture of individual compulsion and learned behaviour. Not only this, I believe that certain cultures and people groups display a common acceptance/rejection of particular responses and this acceptance/rejection is deeply engrained.

It does make a difference when a shutdown or freeze response with dissociation has saved a person's life by creating temporary safety if withdrawal and diminished social interaction in the aftermath is an accepted behaviour or not. It does make a difference when someone has been flooding and in the aftermath floods easily when being triggered - if occasional flooding is a culturally accepted behaviour or not.

What people see happening around them in times of mass trauma is also shaping their survival strategies - not only in families but in society at large.

For instance there is the survival strategy of 'appeasement' - or 'fawn response'. It means that the victim of threat tries to fake compliance, even sympathy toward the perpetrator to down- regulate them to a level of social engagement that is safer for the victim. It doesnt mean they are no longer afraid, or are no longer looking for a way out - it is a survival strategy based on 'fake smiles' and 'fake soothing voice' and humble body language - and it works to some extent. It affords a lot of energy and suppression and overriding of primal responses to do it - and can damage the victims understanding of themselves and their feeling of being an integrated person - sometimes for life.

I propose that there is also a survival strategy of 'being a hero' in which the victim of threat tries to fake 'courage' and 'physical or mental strength' toward the perpetrator to avoid an attack.

I propose that there is also a survival strategy of 'following orders' and 'staying in the designated place in the hierarchy' in which the victim of threat absolves all responsibility for their own decisions to another to appease them.

I propose that there is also a survival strategy of 'being a child' and 'being sick' in which the victim plays naive or disabled to create safety for themselves.


To illustrate how I come to think about the impact of adapted behaviour of people groups that has its origin in mass trauma, I will give two examples:

I noticed the Zulu people have a very effective way of passive resistance. I can relate many stories but the one that set me on the trail happened when I was fairly new in SA. I went with a (white, Afrikaans) nurse to tend to (white) people at their homes around Durban North/ Glenashley - people who were either old or sick or both - most of them had a housekeeper who looked after them but we - nurse and I - bathed them, she did wound dressings and injections of vitamins etc too.

We were once in a home where three siblings (two female one male) in their 80s lived together. They had been owners of a farm and lived in a fairly big house together with three housekeepers and two gardeners/handymen. These people referred to the servants as 'natives' not using names on them although they were proud to tell us that the people had been working for them for 20 and more years. At tea time one of the housekeepers came in dressed in an apron and skirt and served the tea without once looking up into the faces of the people she served. After we bathed one of the Ladies and dressed her in clean clothes, everyone again took tea and nibbles and I excused myself for the loo. I didn't go to the loo but looked for the kitchen, found the servants in the kitchen happy and chatting away.

I asked them if they like working here and they said 'yes'. In the following conversation I understood:

Everyone was crystal clear about the real situation. I was told - with cheeky laughter - that the Oumas and Oupa would not survive 24 hours without them - and that they know it. None of the people they served had cooked a meal in 20 years or washed a sock, or cleaned the floor. The housekeepers and gardeners knew their worth and with much laughter they told me that each one of the three old people would give each one of them extra cash, always telling them not to tell the other two. Oupa would sit with the housekeeping Ladies in the kitchen every morning joking and having a good time before his sisters awoke.

One of these Ladies, in perfect British English, said to me: We are servants and as long as we behave like servants, we are safe. If I am asked a question to which I am not supposed to know the answer (because I am just a stupid maid) I will make a stupid face and say 'Angasi'. Then the others chimed in, saying 'Angasi' is our magic word, they (the bosses) must think we are stupid, then they will care for us.

'But you are not....stupid' I said. 'Oh of course not, but they don't need to now.'

Following this, I had my own experience of 'sudden stupidity' with my own housekeeper. She had asked to go home on a day when I did need her and when I told her she can't go early she immediately relented and said 'It's ok''. But in the weeks thereafter she suddenly could not remember where the pots and pans cutlery and crockery belonged and also was unable to put two of the same socks together. I asked her about it and she behaved as if she did not understand me. I tried to explain in several ways but she was adamant that nothing of what I said made sense to her.

After many years of living here, I am confident to say that 'playing stupid' is a survival strategy that has become a part of the 'culture' - or the way people see themselves. It certainly did the trick many times but now, that it is less effective because dark skinned and white skinned Africans see each other more and more on level ground, it is exposed as what it is - a projection issue both ways. It needs to be dealt with and the way it boomerangs back is this: As dark skinned people feel more and more empowered and worthy, white skinned people feel more and more threatened and anxious - without actual facts that would support this development in real life.

Makes sense ?

Take the Germans. Their survival strategy has always been to follow orders. People are divided into those that give orders by rank and those that follow orders. That was a survival strategy during the many internal conflicts (there was no unified country of Germany) in the time between 1850 and 1918, the end of WW1. Depending on where you lived, you had to follow the orders of a regional duke or whatever they were called to survive. People were not even allowed to move elsewhere, they had to secretly cross borders under duress and threat.

The culmination of this strategy was the population that followed a maniac's orders into the second world war. One should think that this was the end of 'following orders' as a survival strategy but it is not. There is a constant lament that the government is too lenient and not strong enough. The resurgence of fondness, even open calls for a strongman who tells them what to do is mindboggling.

Unless you understand that there is safety in giving up your own agency of decision making and responsibility by following orders, this makes no sense. And because the German Government does not relent to their needs, they put up private armies and local strongmen and follow them.

In both scenarios (SA and Germany) people groups have learned to see themselves in the same way that they were projected upon by the perpetrators - and insofar they do that, they are able to feel safe. Take it away and they feel vulnerable and exposed.

I think we can learn from this - and it would be good for a discussion to go ahead :

How mass trauma brings about mass survival strategies that become part of people 's understanding of themselves and others.

How these strategies become part of the culture and mix with religious beliefs in a way that brings about projection between people groups that is persistent and hard to change.

What can we do to make these phenomena conscious so that they can be changed ?

Or seen for what they really are ?