Collective trauma differs from the types of trauma that affect an individual person. When a group of people experience the same traumatic event and are impacted in much the same way, a collective trauma is the result. The impacts of such an event can last for many generations.1 Finding a trauma-informed therapist can be a great way to begin healing.
What Is Collective Trauma?
When a traumatic occurrence happens to an entire group of people and impacts them in much the same way, collective trauma has occurred.1 This collective trauma can change a community of people to the very core, to the extent that it changes every dynamic of its functioning and all of its relationships within itself and with others.2
“When trauma is experienced collectively the impact is collective. As a result of collective trauma multiple people in a community, or in the case of a global pandemic, people all over the world, are at risk for experiencing the physical and emotional effects of the trauma. If not addressed, collective trauma leads to new societal norms born out of the negative effects of trauma such as fear, anxiety, hopelessness, and avoidance.”7 – Dr. Jacqueline Mack-Harris, PsyD, LMFT
Entire societies can be impacted, as well as families or groups of friends. It can be noted that the family or friend groups are probably the most common groups to experience collective trauma in everyday life.
What Events Cause Collective Trauma?
Throughout history, groups of people have suffered many painful injuries. Most of us have heard some of these events that caused collective traumatic experiences:
- Trail of Tears
- The Holocaust
- Japanese internment
- Mass shootings
- The migrant detention centers at our borders
Other types of human error can cause collective trauma, as well. There are countless disasters such as aviation and railroad accidents and others. Some of the more notable are:
- BP oil spill in the Gulf
- the sinking of the Titanic
Traumatic events do not just occur at the hands of other humans, though. Nature can create her own traumatic events, such as:
- Volcanic eruptions
In our own recent history, as Americans, we have experienced several traumatic events throughout our history. More recently, a few examples come to mind: 9/11 is a date that is forever etched in our memory. Racism continually impacts groups of people in painful ways, and George Floyd is a name that will not be soon forgotten (along with so many other violent atrocities incited against Black Americans). Nor will things ever be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic. Not just our country, but the entire world has been impacted by the coronavirus.
Collective Trauma & the Pandemic
Reactions to the pandemic are spread across the spectrum from healthy and resilient to unhealthy and destructive, and everything in between. The shutdowns have led to many people feeling shutdown themselves, in their own lives. The isolation felt during social distancing led to unbearable feelings of isolation for some. The financial impact was devastating for millions. Many people took up drinking or increased their substance use in an effort to cope with increased stress in their lives. Social media has allowed us to witness these reactions from people all over the globe.
However, technology has also afforded us the opportunity to connect with virtually anyone we choose. This has allowed us to connect with others during social distancing, to educate others about the coronavirus and its impact, and to express our fears, outrage, or even our humor about any dynamic of the pandemic. We can use technology to remind each other that we are not alone. Togetherness makes the difficult times bearable.
The Long-Term Effects of Collective Trauma
Shared traumatic experiences can impact people and communities in many ways. This impact is not always felt evenly across the individuals within the group, meaning that the same traumatic event may, and often does, impact one person more severely than another person.
“Besides the emotional and psychological impact of such events on individuals, collective traumas often fundamentally alter the way that people relate to one another. Communities may have to adjust to a new way of life and, at times, forge a new social identity. In some cases, violence and suffering may become ingrained in communities’ identities; in others, community members may try to understand the origin of harmful events and advocate for accountability, education and public policies to ensure they do not happen again.”8 – Liana Tuller, PhD, Research Fellow at the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University
The general mental health of an individual lays the foundation for how a person will respond when disaster strikes because trauma isn’t what happens to you externally; it’s about what takes place internally.3 An easily relatable metaphor is a bank account—if you have a well-padded account, you will be better able to financially handle the emergencies that may arise. If you are already struggling financially, the next emergency might be the one that bankrupts you.
Mental health is very much the same. If you have a solid foundation of mental and emotional health and wellbeing, you will be better equipped to handle challenges and the upheaval that a traumatic event can bring. If you don’t have enough mental health resources, a traumatic event may lead to a wide variety of painful effects, such as PTSD, addictions, and other mental health disturbances.
When your ancestors have experienced trauma and did not fully process or heal from that trauma, the possibility of inheriting trauma occurs. When this trauma is passed from one generation to the next it is referred to as intergenerational trauma. The effects can be quite devastating, as it often impacts an individual without an awareness of the source. If you feel that this may be a part of your story, working with a therapist can be a helpful resource to help you heal and start a new legacy.
Tuller says, “Sometimes, when communities’ restorative capacities are overwhelmed by massive traumas, their impact may be cross-generational. This can happen in various ways:
- Through the epigenetic inheritance of trauma
- Through parenting styles that are altered when adults struggle to process or try to compensate for harm
- Through lasting economic impacts of harmful events
- Through cultural prohibition and cultural change”
Relationships are an important component of our lives. When relationships are healthy and happy, they are a helpful resource for us as we go through the difficult moments in life. When those relationships are chaotic and painful, they can become their own source of trauma and stress.
Collective trauma impacts relationships. They can be dramatically altered when one group of people learns to see its role with another group of people in a very different way. This viewpoint leads to behaviors that create a system to support those assumptions.1
6 Ways to Reduce the Impact of Collective Trauma
There are many ways to support yourself, your family, and your community when we’re going through a collective experience, such as the pandemic. The good news is that we are all experiencing the same types of challenges and impacts, which can foster understanding and empathy among ourselves. No one has to go through this alone.
Here are six things you can do to bolster yourself, your family, and your community after experiencing collective trauma:
1. Raise Your Awareness
Becoming aware is the first step. Whenever you use GPS to get anywhere, you must type in your current location. Awareness of your current location is essential to moving forward. Become aware of the impact that the event has had on you, your family, and all the various areas and people in your life.
Mack-Harris encourages, “After a traumatic experience it is helpful to get to a place where you identify as a survivor rather than a victim. Language is powerful so mind your self-talk.”
Become aware of how you feel about that impact by:
- Talking with a trusted friend or therapist is helpful to this process.
- Journaling to process your feelings. If security is an issue, using password protection on your phone or an online document, such as Google Docs, can be helpful.
- Practicing mindfulness. It not only raises your awareness, but also lays the foundation for several physical, spiritual and mental health benefits as well.
2. Nurture Your Resilience
- Practice authenticity: Being able to know and express your feelings is an important part of nurturing your resiliency.4 Talking with an emotionally-safe friend, joining a support group, writing in a journal, and meeting with a trusted therapist are all ways to express and nurture your authentic self.
- Practice gratitude: Gratitude is an important component of happiness. Although there are many painful aspects of life after a tragedy or traumatic event, there are some things that we can be grateful for as well. Gratitude also indirectly bolsters our self-esteem, which is important in resiliency.
- Practice humor: Laughter is a great way to bear the difficult things in life. How do you know if you are using humor appropriately? A simple rule of thumb is to ask yourself if you are using humor to hide from your pain or to help you “lean into” your pain.
3. Take Care of Your Body
It’s easy to forget the basics when we are stressed and depressed. There are many articles and books on the benefits of taking care of your physical health, so here is just a brief list:
- Sleep: It’s important to make sure you are getting adequate sleep, which is 7 ½ -9 hours for most adults. Most people can agree that the world looks better after a good night’s sleep. The science backs this up, as well.
- Water: Drinking enough water keeps your body hydrated and reduces the tendency to stress eat. Keeping your brain well hydrated is important to making your best decisions.
- Nutrition: Especially important when we have a tendency to crave foods full of sugar or fat, balanced eating keeps our bodies functioning at their best.
- Good posture: When we are stressed and depressed, we tend to hunch forward, blocking a free flow of oxygen. Try making even the smallest shifts in your posture—you will notice a difference.
- Calming Bodywork: Bodywork that is helpful often focuses on breathwork, body awareness, and mindfulness, which calm the autonomic nervous system and facilitates the healing of trauma in the body.5
There are many forms of bodywork that can explore, including:
- Yoga (particularly trauma-sensitive yoga)
- Tai Chi
- Alexander Technique
4. Find Your Community
It’s important to find a group of people that we can “be real” with. We often filter ourselves for the people in our life, particularly if we are caretakers in any way. Our awareness of our impact on others causes us to edit or mask our feelings so that we can impact the people in our lives positively. There are others like us, making the same kinds of sacrifices for those we love in our lives. It’s important to find those people experiencing the same situations and emotions that we are, so we don’t get burnt out.6
Mack-Harris says, “People can reduce the effects of trauma by talking about it with others. Research has shown that people who have a strong healthy support system and access to resources immediately after the trauma are less likely to end up with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). We were created for relationship, and we heal in community.”
Tuller also emphasizes the importance of community, saying, “People who suffer from harmful events often experience isolation and shame. Understanding that others are going through the same thing may remove some of that stigma, which itself is a secondary harm emerging from trauma. In addition, viewing harmful events through a lens of critical reflection—understanding harm as a result of social injustice rather than personal failing—is often empowering.”
Group classes can be a powerful form of community. For example, taking a group trauma-sensitive yoga class can be a wonderful way to experience a collective healing process, or if your community offers it, you could pursue critical incident stress debriefing.
5. Find a Trauma-Informed Therapist
We don’t always feel comfortable talking about our negative or painful emotions with others for a variety of reasons. However, being able to do so is essential to our resiliency and mental health.6
We need to be authentic to ourselves. A therapist can help you create a safe space to explore the parts of you that can feel scary without judgment but with wise guidance, not allowing you to get stuck in the past or in blaming, but to explore the past’s impact on your life today.
A trained, trauma-informed therapist may utilize treatments such as:
These treatment methods, and others, will help to move you out of your past trauma into a brighter present and future, free and joyful.
6. Take Part in Community Rebuilding
There are many ways that we can participate in community rebuilding. If you have the time or the resources, taking part in community rebuilding can be a rewarding experience. Supporting local businesses helps our local economies to thrive. Donating to charity doesn’t just have to be financially. Perfectly good items can be donated to your local thrift stores.
Closer to home might be activities like cooking a meal for a neighbor or friend or shopping for someone who may still not be able to get out. As social distancing restrictions lift, you may consider donating time to a local soup kitchen or other local organizations doing good in your community. You might find your local Habitat for Humanity chapter, which often has opportunities for volunteers to donate time to help build a new home.
Tuller also mentions the importance of activism for revitalizing a community: “People who emerge from difficult periods may use their unique experience and perspective to engage in activism, helping others who continue to suffer or speaking out to promote social justice. These people are said to experience posttraumatic growth—a transformation leading to an appreciation for life, personal strength, spiritual change, and a sense of meaning. Research suggests that participating in communal rituals of commemoration and engaging in social justice movements promotes social support and posttraumatic growth.”
Mack Harris emphasizes, “Everyone in the collective must do their own work to manage after the trauma. However, the collective must also work together to address the cause and the effects of the trauma. They must be honest about the hard things they experienced instead of stuff the pain and try to act like nothing has happened. The truth always comes out.”
Final Thoughts on Collective Trauma
We don’t have to deal with trauma on our own. Thanks to technology, we can create connections with just about anyone in the world if we want to. Creating connections with safe people in our life will help bolster our resiliency and our mental health. Reach out to a trusted friend or therapist today. Your life will reflect the relationships you cultivate. You will feel the difference.
Collective Trauma Infographics