What is Collective Trauma and How Does It Affect Your Health?

From natural disasters to police brutality and the ongoing pandemic, nearly everyone in the country has suffered from what’s known as collective trauma. Instead of inflicting trauma on one person, these memories are shared by the community and are often passed down from generation to generation. This form of trauma can alter the course of society for decades to come, but it can also change how we see ourselves and our relationships with others.

Every instance of collective trauma is different and affects groups of people in different ways. Our country has a long history of weathering collective trauma, including World Wars, a legacy of slavery and institutional racism, as well as more recent events like the California wildfires and the 2008 recession.

Sociologists and psychologists are still trying to make sense of the effects of this phenomenon, but they are often wide-ranging and unique to each individual, including lasting mental distress, feelings of hopelessness, or the idea that society has failed them. The coronavirus will likely lead to a new sense of collective trauma in the U.S., so let’s find out how it could shape our future.

Existential Crisis

According to the National Institute of Health, collective trauma is defined as “the psychological reactions to a traumatic event that affect an entire society.” Personal trauma can isolate individuals. They may turn to support groups, therapy, and counselling as a way of talking about these issues; collective trauma seems to affect everyone at once.

As researchers put it, “It suggests that the tragedy is represented in the collective memory of the group, and like all forms of memory it comprises not only a reproduction of the events, but also an ongoing reconstruction of the trauma in an attempt to make sense of it.”

For many, these incidents tend to disrupt life in every sense of the word. Things that used to seem important no longer have meaning as new threats emerge. Individuals and groups often go on to question their identity, purpose, and connection to larger society. Survivors may feel ashamed or embarrassed of themselves, their community, country, or organization.

Post-traumatic stress disorder often comes into play, which can leave individuals and groups feeling vulnerable for years to come. What used to feel safe suddenly feels dangerous and unnecessary. Some may be afraid to leave their houses or engage with the outside world if it means taking a risk.

Changing the Narrative

Researchers have studied the perpetrators of collective trauma as well as their victims. You can’t hold a hurricane or novel virus responsible for its actions, but certain individuals and groups can easily incite or exacerbate collective trauma, intentionally or otherwise. This may include business executives that put profits over people, war criminals, corrupt political leaders, and other groups that can affect society at large.

Studies show that as time goes on, the perpetrators often try to twist the narrative around the incident in question to absolve themselves of responsibility. They may omit facts or introduce false information to manipulate the aftermath of the traumatic experience.

Collective trauma is often passed down through generations, and these false narratives can change how people feel about themselves and their relationship to their country or organization. This is a reminder that history is often up for grabs. If we really want to make sense of the current moment, we need all the facts, so we can learn from previous mistakes and prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.

Finding Solidarity

Traumatic incidents tend to affect people differently based on a range of factors, including class, race, gender, and religious beliefs. Some may feel as if their life has been completely uprooted, while others continue with their lives as if nothing has changed.

Studies show that survivors of collective trauma can use social media and other digital tools to find solidarity. Researchers tracked online behavior after the terrorist attack in Paris in 2015. They found that survivors often used negative language in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, but several weeks later, users started focusing on more positive language to create a sense of hope and resilience. Such was the case with the “Boston Strong” campaign after the Boston Marathon Bombings of 2014.

However, studies also show that the more survivors consume digital media reliving the event, the more they tend to suffer from the effects of PTSD, including acute stress and feelings of vulnerability. In the aftermath of 9/11, people who watched four to seven hours a day of news coverage of the attack were four times as likely to report PTSD-like symptoms.

Studying the Long-Term Effects

To study the long-term effects of collective trauma, researchers need a control, so they can compare survivors to those who didn’t witness the event in question. But that’s not always an option.

Take the coronavirus, for example; researchers will be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t been affected in some way. This makes it difficult to parse out the effects of the pandemic. It would also be unfeasible to compare one tragedy to another. The immediate aftermath of the 1918 Flu Pandemic may look nothing like our eventual recovery from COVID-19.

This form of trauma fosters a sense of a collective identity as individuals struggle to make sense of the event on their own. We often look to outside sources and leaders when trying to move on with our lives. That’s why it’s important to rely on trustworthy sources and non-biased information when looking back on the incident in question.

2020 has been full of collective trauma. The months and years ahead may lead to radical structural and behavioral changes, a renewed sense of national pride, and new stories that last generations.

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