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The Toxic Culture and the Tombs it erects

The Age of Discovery, marked the colonization of India by several competing empires in the European subcontinent. Upon colonization, an increased sociocultural selection of the idealized androgenous subtype, brought patriarchal notions to the forefront (Thomas, 2007). Furthermore, having suffered from cultural upheaval, poverty, economic exploitation, malnutrition, lowered life expectancies and social structures designed to create a sense of racial inferiority, caused ethnic and religious groups of India to adopt ideologies marketed by the colonizers as their coping mechanism (Tharoor, 2018).

Dehumanization (reducing the indigenous population to the ranks of a savage or an animal) and defeminization (resulting in toxic masculinist social conditioning) was necessary to justify colonization (Thomas, 2007). To this effect, restrictions put upon livelihoods was sought out as a medium to annihilate the indigenous practices the colonists came across (Kipling, 1940; Chisolm, 1982). Establishments such as patriarchy, colonialism and white supremacy, resulted in traumatic experiences inherited by the general populace as a whole.

As opposed to the narrative of the post-colonial trauma inheritance, we can also zoom in on just our primary environments, the societies we grew up in.

Modern medicine often views our bodies and the diseases as separate from one’s emotional and nervous underpinnings. If one were to visit a doctor’s office today, most often it is the symptom that gets treated, one is prescribed drugs. No matter what conditions you present, be it an autoimmune disease, cancer, schizophrenia, depression, bipolar, mood disorders, gastrointestinal problems or even rheumatoid arthritis, very rarely do you have physicians questioning trauma, for they have never signed up for any courses on trauma.

Today, our society is in a race to eradicate addictions, without once pausing to understand their root cause. While drug use and alcoholism gets penalized, the workaholics are rewarded by society. Look into every substance or activity you indulge in and you’ll realize that it is not uncommon for people to partake in these addictions for the sole purpose to heal. They often help in returning a stressed body to homeostasis. We like ourselves when we indulge because we like the numbing effect it has on our pain. It soothes us.

Not once does our society pause to think “Maybe, we should change our language, perhaps even our conduct.” Instead, the one suffering almost always takes the role of a punching bag.

David Foster Wallace, in one of his commencement addresses, gave us an amazing analogy. He characterized two young fish that were once swimming along when they happened upon an older fish swimming the other way, who nodded at them and said, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two fish swim for a bit and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and asks, “What the hell is water?”

We have normalized abuse and trauma, specifically the traumatic parenting and patterns we see growing up that we do not stop and question, “What is that current that drives our behaviors?” We go down the stream just as every other fish in our society, without having to address trauma. As Dr. Gabor Mate would put it, “On a societal level normal implies nothing to see here: all systems functioning as they should, no further inquiry needed.”

So why am I talking about trauma? How is it connected to any symptoms our body may present or any addictions we may indulge in?

Parenting style in India, influencing a child’s development from the prospects of educational attainment to life expectancy, conditions future generations to adopt the nested model of attachment and trauma (Abi, 2021). The development of unresolved trauma upon undergoing parenting styles rooted in emotional abuse, results in an unhealthy attachment style (Fern, 2020).

We are a social species. In order for us to survive, we needed to band together, to create communities, and establish multitudes of relationships. Unlike other animals, we are born premature. There are several studies that point out that the current gestation period was pushed up to ensure that we give birth to smaller brains, resulting in fewer deaths caused due to childbirths. Hence, we are born premature, unable to fend for ourselves. Our survival is solely in the hands of our caregivers. In this vein, a strong attachment to a caregiver was highly necessary to ensure our survivability.

The neural circuits underlying attachment patterns in childhood are repurposed to form attachments in adulthood. Often, with individuals harboring insecure attachment styles, there is a tendency to relive attachment patterns of their past and their childhoods. The familiar seems safer.

The interaction with our caregivers at a very young age tunes up one’s autonomic nervous system. If we compare the autonomic nervous system to a see-saw, one can go from being highly stimulated and anxious to being calm and sleepy. The hinge of the see-saw determines how quickly one’s nervous system moves from homeostasis to highly stressed. There also happens to be something called the autonomic tone which determines how tight or loose the hinge is. This autonomic tone is set by our interactions with our parents at a very young age.

The pregnancy and the initial developmental stages are highly crucial as they set the stage for the autonomic tone the child abides by even when it develops into an adult. This period lays the foundations for the development of the child’s stress systems. It even determines what and how frequently a child marks a stimulus as a threat. As an example, let’s look at the unavailability of a busy partner as a stimulus. This stimulus may be marked down as a threat if the individual in question, as a kid, was exposed to a highly stressed caregiver’s nervous system.

A study during WWII documented the mothers’ and their children’s physiologies, well into the children’s adulthoods. Their results support the argument made earlier. Mothers who were highly stressed, their nervous systems and physiologies reflecting the stress, laid down the foundation for the children’s nervous system to mimic their mothers’ stress patterns. When observed as adults, these children harbored the same stress patterns as they did as kids.

Conversely, when the mother was able to emotionally regulate, the child developed an autonomic tone that mimicked their parent. They weren’t easy to stress out.

It all boils down to the social structures and the toxicity that has invaded it. Referencing Dr. Gabor Mate’s analogy, a toxic culture resembles the culture we find in a laboratory. Both influence the biochemical broth that promotes the development of an organism. When a laboratory culture gets contaminated, it inhibits the growth of the organism, and could also be dangerous to their existence. As activist and author, Thomm Hartmann argues, “Culture can be healthy or toxic, nurturing or murderous.”

Our toxic culture, disproportionated the quality of human experiences. Countless suffer stress, illnesses beyond the scope of diagnoses, socioeconomic inequalities, ignorance, poverty, social isolation, and many more stimuli that sentence them to a premature death.

In the biography of Keith Richards, the guitarist for The Rolling Stones, in reference to his heroin addiction he says, “The addiction was all about looking for oblivion, for forgetting, the contortions we go through just enough to be ourselves for a few hours.” The siren call of the desire to escape from our own minds is often hard to ignore.

We all have our own coping mechanism to counter the challenges we faced when we were powerless toddlers. For some, workaholism is an avoidant attachment behavior, for others it is alcohol or drugs. Few of us often stay put in similar abusive relationships as we were taught to comply as kids: we become the emotional punching bags or as society calls us, “the doormats”.

Stress often takes an immense toll on one’s quality of life. In each of these scenarios and many more that have been left unnamed, one’s stress systems are often on high alert. Higher cortisol levels impact several other steroid dependent hormonal pathways thus manifesting as many of the aforementioned conditions. As the psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk had once written, “ All trauma is preverbal.” Yes, these psychic wounds we sustained were inflicted upon us even before our brains were capable of formulating a narrative. Furthermore, as we develop, these wounds impact brain areas that have nothing to do with language processing.

We are often conditioned to think of trauma in reference to traumatic events that classify as capital T-trauma (natural disasters or child sexual abuse) that we forget that in the eyes of the infant, the loss of an attachment with the caregiver can be as traumatic as the capital T-traumas. We view trauma as an event, when in actuality, it is the memory of the events that had once occurred.

The primate’s anthropoid brain that is concerned with social interactions, has neural circuits rooted in the success of social plasticity that was adopted as an adaptive mechanism (Adolphs, 2001; Bateson & Gluckman, 2012). In fact, the field of neuroanthropology would argue that certain projections in the brain develop through cultural leveraging wherein cultural practices and institutions put in place, influence genetic expression, neural pathway development, behavioral patterns, and social interactions (Lende, 2012).

“The nature of our nature is to not be particularly constrained by our nature" -Dr. Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D.

Our socio-cultural environments have a huge impact on which genes get turned on or off, how different areas of our brain develop and how we cope with different stressors surrounding us on an everyday basis.

It is time we change the narrative from writing prescriptions to trauma-informed treatments.

It is time the society changes its language and makes an effort to understand those suffering.

It is time we change the culture broth that contaminates and hinders our quality of life.

The cultural niche model which thematizes the inheritance of a generation’s adapted environment by the next generation (Tooby & DeVore, 1987): socially transmitted adaptations strategized for a particular generation’s survival are assimilated and absorbed over the course of history by subsequent generations (Boyd, Richerson, & Henrich, 2011), indicates a degree of generational inheritance of trauma.


Abi Rached M, Hankir A, Zaman R. Patriarchal Upbringing in the 21st Century: The Impact Emotional Abuse Related to Parental Styles Has on the Genesis of Gender Inequality and the Development of Unresolved Trauma in Children. Psychiatr Danub. 2021 Dec;33(Suppl 11):121-132. PMID: 34862904.

Adolphs, R. (2001). The neurobiology of social cognition. Curr Opin Neurobiol, 11(2), 231-239. doi:10.1016/s0959-4388(00)00202-6

Bateson, P., & Gluckman, P. (2012). Plasticity and robustness in development and evolution. Int J Epidemiol, 41(1), 219-223. doi:10.1093/ije/dyr240.

Boyd, R., Richerson, P. J., & Henrich, J. (2011). The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(Suppl 2), 10918-10925.

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Mate, D. G. (2018). In the realm of hungry ghosts. Vermilion.

Maté, G., & Maté, D. (2022). The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture: Ebury Publishing.

Menakem, R. (2017). My grandmother’s hands. Central Recovery Press.

Sapolsky, Robert M.. Behave: The Biology of Humans At Our Best and Worst. New York, New York, Penguin Press, 2017.

Tharoor, S. (2018). Inglorious empire. Penguin Books.

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Schemes of Empire. Indiana University Press. ISBN 13: 9780253218940.

Tooby, J., & DeVore, I. (1987). The reconstruction of hominid behavioral evolution through strategic modeling. The evolution of human behavior: Primate models, 183-237.

van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Viking.


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