Living in a Time of Collective Trauma

As we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, each of us has been affected individually, but the pandemic is also a shared experience that continues to have a global impact. There is more to this than just individual trauma, multiplied by nearly 8 billion. We are experiencing a collective trauma, where there's an event or a series of events that traumatize many people at the same time. The COVID-19 pandemic is also more complex than other instances of collective trauma, such as 9/11 and natural disasters, in that the pandemic is not a distinct event; we really don’t know when it will end.

Collective trauma can manifest in strange ways. People experience social anxiety, for example, because every personal encounter carries a threat of infection that may put loved ones at risk. The constant hypervigilance is wearing on people, leading to a general sense of “COVID fatigue.” It sometimes feels as though empathy has been lost in our society. For a variety of reasons, many people have “maxed out” their emotional resources, leaving them more on edge and less compassionate.

We've also all become “preppers” to some extent, echoing the behavior of those who stock supplies against the impending collapse of civilization. It began with the shortages of toilet paper, cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) early in the pandemic, and now extends into the ongoing supply chain issues we see today. It doesn’t take too many trips to a supermarket filled with empty shelves to trigger hoarding behaviors, where we buy more than we need when we do manage to find something of importance to us on the shelf.

Many of us are still in survival mode, and that may short-circuit our ability to acknowledge our pain and fear. When our lives are threatened, such emotions can be suppressed, only to manifest later. Once the crisis passes, all that suppressed pain and fear can come crashing back. If not dealt with properly, this can lead to the symptoms of depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People don’t always recognize their behaviors as symptoms of a traumatic response.

For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, people developed obsessive cleaning habits: Scrubbing down all the produce, washing hands constantly, etc. Now we know that the virus is transmitted through the air, not by consuming food or contact with surfaces. If someone continues to scrub everything compulsively, that might be a sign of a mental health disorder.

This is an example of an adaptive behavior that made sense when there was little information on how the virus was transmitted, but it becomes maladaptive over time when the behavior continues when the need for it has passed. It is also an example of how collective trauma can play out: It is common to still see stores acting in this way, wiping down surfaces after every customer. The behavior has become encoded into our expected social norms, even though it no longer necessary.

Along the same lines, the pandemic had an impact on people’s experience with many of our social institutions, such as trust in our government and its decisions, or in our healthcare system and the advice given to us by medical professionals.

In fact, trauma can cause people to re-examine their perceptions of themselves, others, and the world. The collective trauma of the pandemic has shocked many of us to our core, forcing us to re-examine who we are as a county/society, how we respond to crises, how we treat/mistreat each other, our place in the world, etc. This type of reckoning can sow seeds for transformational changes for both individuals and society.

Traumatic stress may also prompt the development of a sense of foreshortened future: A feeling that one’s life will be cut short, causing a sense of impending doom. This can develop for anyone but is likely to be more common for individuals who experienced the loss of loved ones or peers, medical professionals and others who witnessed the magnitude of the mortality caused by COVID-19, or those who are at high risk for severe illness/serious complications of COVID-19.

Many people also find themselves more irritable and less patient. When our mental and emotional resources are stretched thin, our tolerance with frustration naturally declines.

And, of course, there is a lot of profound loneliness, general anxiety, and depression. Unfortunately, we also see a spike in substance use and other problem behaviors as people turned to compulsive or binge eating, alcohol, or substance use to cope.

How should we, as individuals, respond to this sense of collective trauma that has grown from the pandemic? There are several actions we can take:

Take care of ourselves. The best way to deal with stress is to prioritize our wellness: Get enough sleep, engage in physical activity, eat healthy food, limit or avoid alcohol and other mood-altering substances, limit screen time, and find time to relax and recharge. We cannot control society, but we do have some measure of control over ourselves.

Acknowledge our experiences and emotions. There’s a temptation to try to minimize the disruption and loss caused by the pandemic. In some ways, this is a natural, unconscious response to these unpredictable and scary circumstances, part of the survival instinct. But such feelings cannot be ignored for long, as they likely will manifest later as symptoms of depression or anxiety, or perhaps lead to problem eating, drinking or substance use. It's important to validate our experiences, no matter how difficult, sad, or scary.

Practice thankfulness. Sometimes it can be healthy to acknowledge – no matter how painful or anxiety-provoking an experience was – that something positive that has grown out of an experience, even if it is simply that you survived. Gratitude can provide perspective and even bolster your well-being daily.

Establish boundaries. We must be deliberate in how we use our time and energy. It's more important than ever to create boundaries to recharge and replenish, or to limit exposure to triggers that are unnecessarily upsetting. This might involve limiting screen time, scrolling social media, or watching the news. Firm boundaries can also be helpful with certain people and situations.

Have compassion for others, and for ourselves. The pandemic experience is unique to each person. We're all in this storm together, but we don't all have the same equipment to help weather through it.

The people we meet in life are likely facing a struggle that is invisible to us. We only get to see the version of a person that they choose to show us. It's always best to approach somebody as if they're fighting a battle we don't know about.

Stay connected. Supportive relationships and a sense of belonging are essential to general wellbeing and are even more critical, now, as we grapple with the emotional toll of the pandemic. It is important to remain connected to supportive networks, such as friends, family, co-workers, religious communities, support groups, etc.

Seek professional help, if needed. For some people, those ways of coping may not be enough. They may need to seek professional help. Somebody who had a prior traumatic stressor, for example, might be especially triggered by the isolation and stress of the pandemic.

The pandemic is probably reshaping society


For most of us, this is our first global traumatic experience. Any time a society experiences a collective trauma such as this, there's an internal reflection process: Where are we? What do we want? What should the future of our society look like? There are widely differing points of view on those questions, which are reflected in the political polarization we’re experiencing. Economic, political, climate and social justice concerns are all interrelated with the experience of the pandemic.

We don’t fully know yet how these years will impact us. The Great Depression and the World War that followed reshaped our society tremendously, but it would have been difficult to predict the changes in the early years of the Depression. Those two events also had profound impacts on the psyches of the people who lived through them, something that has been passed down through generations. We will likely see lingering threads of the pandemic for many generations.

However, there is plenty of reason to be hopeful. Research shows that humanity is incredibly resilient, and most people who experience a traumatic event will not develop PTSD. With an experience like the global pandemic, I believe we will continue to see communities moving forward together in solidarity and support for each other, strengthening and healing our collective whole.

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