Trauma in animal advocacy is not a topic that one sees discussed very often, but trauma is a central consideration in animal advocacy for a couple of reasons. Many animal advocates have personally experienced trauma themselves. In fact, for many of us, our personal experiences of abuse and injustice are what have helped us develop the mindset that we must fight to prevent all vulnerable creatures from experiencing unnecessary trauma and abuse. When one experiences trauma and abuse, they are more likely to be sensitive to trauma experienced by others and fight for justice for those oppressed.
While the experience of trauma may make us more attuned to the abuse of others, it also may leave us more vulnerable to trauma-related problems such as posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and substance use difficulties. As animal advocates, we bear witness to extreme atrocities that nonhuman animals experience, some of us on a daily basis. This trauma exposure can wear on us and negatively impact our overall sense of well-being. Some may cope with these problems by turning their frustration and depression outward, resulting in difficulties with anger and aggression. Others may drink or use other substances to try to numb themselves to the pain.
It is important for all of us to be aware of what’s going on with us internally, and to decide for ourselves what degree of trauma exposure, if any, we are able to withstand. It does the animals no good if we are incapacitated with sadness and grief as we are exposed to trauma inflicted on them. We all must learn how best to take care of ourselves, both physically and emotionally, and surround ourselves with a supportive network that we can reach out to when we feel sad, frustrated, or a range of other negative emotions. We care so much about these animals and want to end their trauma, but the fact that we can only do so much to immediately end this trauma is devastating to many of us.
I have published research studies based on samples of military Veterans showing that when one experiences trauma, they’re more likely to view the world through an overly hostile lens. Some of my research shows that when one is exposed to trauma and experiences posttraumatic stress disorder, they have greater difficulties managing anger, are more likely to interpret events in a negative manner, and are more likely to lash out at others. This is based on a trauma-informed social information-processing model that my colleagues and I have elaborated in recent work (Taft, Murphy, & Creech, in press).
I mention this because it’s important that animal advocates exposed to constant trauma always be mindful that it’s easy to go down that abyss and view the world and all of its inhabitants as horrible. While the reality is that there is immense unnecessary suffering and humans are an incredibly destructive species, we need to prevent ourselves from developing such a cynical view that we’re not able to effect any kind of change.
In the last chapter we discussed core themes and how they can guide our behavior. Much of my clinical work has focused on how core themes can be disrupted by trauma, which can in turn negatively impact our relationships and ability to communicate. When we experience trauma, it can shake the very foundations of our beliefs and effects can reverberate across several domains of our lives. One of my mentors, Dr. Patricia Resick, developed and tested a highly successful treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder that has consistently and impressively demonstrated that when we address disruptions in these core beliefs, or cognitive schemas, we can help resolve traumas and develop healthier ways of viewing ourselves and others (Resick & Schnicke, 1992).
For example, when somebody is victimized in some way, or witnesses others being victimized, they may find it difficult to trust others. Or perhaps they suffer from difficulties related to self-esteem. They may harshly judge themselves when they make mistakes or for other minor infractions. Difficulties with trust and self-esteem can lead to depression, anger, and aggressive behavior. Traumatic events involving other people may also lead one to believe that others are not good or don’t need to be respected. They may have generalized this belief to everyone, which may also lead to a host of difficulties.
Power and control difficulties can develop when activists feel completely powerless to end horrific animal abuse. A profound sense of helplessness and uncontrollability can lead to chronic feelings of hopelessness. Feelings of powerlessness not only contribute to posttraumatic stress disorder (Finkelhor & Browne, 1985), but they can also contribute to power struggles with others and aggressive interactions (Schwartz, Waldo, & Daniel, 2005).
We can’t help others go vegan if we’re constantly skeptical of them and we assume the worst about them. We can’t help others go vegan if we jump down their throat immediately when they present us with one of the common justifications for animal use that we’re all too familiar with. Our best hope of creating a vegan world is to be calm but impassioned, assertive activists who can show non-vegans that we’re fully rational, compassionate people who want to help animals and prevent needless violence and abuse.
I have worked with many angry, violent Veterans who experienced severe combat-related trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder who were still able to change their perspective. It is by no means an easy task, but if one really pays close attention to their thoughts and how they are interpreting situations and themselves, as well as their feelings and other signs their bodies give them, they can train themselves to assume the best in others rather than assuming the worst. If we’re able to see things without assuming the worst, we’re more likely to recognize a desire to change and hints that a non-vegan is open to our vegan message.
We will miss those openings if we’re stuck in a state of negativity and hopelessness, so we must find a way to get help if we need it. I encourage anyone struggling with these issues to consider seeing a counselor who specialized in cognitive-behavioral therapy, which has been shown time and time again to be the most effective treatment for trauma-related problems (Keane, Marshall, & Taft, 2006).
Finally, recognizing the trauma experiences of non-vegans may also help open the door for true change to occur. When one experiences trauma, they will be particularly negatively reactive against more aggressive ways of approaching them. I have found that when I hear the person out and let them talk about their experiences, they will be much more likely to listen to my (vegan) point of view. Those who have experienced trauma in particular will be highly resistant to more confrontational, aggressive approaches, which is just another reason to be assertive, not aggressive, in our advocacy.
Finkelhor, D., & Browne, A. (1985). “The traumatic impact of child sexual abuse: A conceptualization.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 55(4), 530– 541.
Keane, T. M., Marshall, A. D., Taft, C. T. (2006). “Posttraumatic stress disorder: Etiology, epidemiology, and treatment outcome.” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 2, 161–197.
Resick, P. A., & Schnicke, M. K. (1992). “Cognitive processing therapy for sexual assault victims.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 60(5), 748–756.
Schwartz, J. P., Waldo, M., & Daniel, D. (2005). “Gender-role conflict and self-esteem: Factors associated with partner abuse in court-referred men.” Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 6(2), 109–113.
Taft, C.T., Murphy, C. M., & Creech, S. K. (in press). “Trauma-Informed Treatment and Prevention of Intimate Partner Violence.” American Psychological Association.
Casey is co-owner of Vegan Publishers and Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine. He’s an internationally recognized researcher in the area of violence prevention, winning prestigious awards for his work from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He has published over 100 journal articles, book chapters, and scientific reports, and has a book forthcoming on trauma-informed violence prevention, published by the American Psychological Association.