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Understanding & Coping with Collective Trauma

Do you find yourself getting more angry than usual?  Or have you lost your joy in many activities? Do you feel alone and feel like binge eating or drinking alcohol? If you relate to any of these know that you are not alone and you may be suffering from collective trauma. A CDC study conducted […]

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Do you find yourself getting more angry than usual?  Or have you lost your joy in many activities? Do you feel alone and feel like binge eating or drinking alcohol? If you relate to any of these know that you are not alone and you may be suffering from collective trauma. A CDC study conducted in June 2020 reports that since the pandemic started anxiety/depression symptoms increased by 31%, trauma related disorders increased by 26% and substance use increased by 13%. 

When the first week the stay-at-home restrictions were announced back in March 2020 one of my clients expressed her concern: “Everyone’s traumatized, even my support system is traumatized.  Who am I going to go to now for comfort?”. Sheryl had been struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder following a traumatic event where she witnessed a robbery in a convenience store 3 years ago. Although she came out alive and safe, she had witnessed 2 other people being murdered in front of her eyes. Since then, Sheryl had been unable to sleep and walk around without fearing for her life. She had come to seek my help just about a month before pandemic hit the world. We had been working on helping her feel safe again so she could at least go out for simple activities like walking or shopping. When the whole world shut down and she was now forced to be at home her nightmares at first got worse. Feeling powerless because of Covid-19 reminded her how she felt when the store got violently attacked. In the following weeks and months unfortunately Sheryl’s mental health declined significantly. Living in a world where no one felt safe anymore made her PTSD symptoms only worse. 

The Covid-19 pandemic is a collective trauma, that is a trauma shared by a group of people who feels overwhelmed.  In this case, the worldwide magnitude of this trauma is something like we’ve never experienced in most of our lifetimes. While there are a few advantages to shared experiences (i.e. “we are all in this together” mentality), mainly there are disadvantages. When a collective trauma like Covid-19 happens, it’s difficult to escape it because everyone is talking about it. When the whole world is in turmoil, it’s hard to stay calm and clear thinking.

I assured my client Sheryl that although I was stressed, I still felt strong enough to be able to help her. That calmed her down initially. She needed to know that there was someone who could hold strong and be the rock and be a kind of refuge. 

Feelings like anxiety and depression can be quite contagious. Currently the most discussed topic is still the pandemic. There’s almost no way to avoid it. Under normal circumstances, individuals in stressful situations often look for refuge in other people or in other places. However, during a collective stress like this where the stress is everywhere, refuge might be difficult to find. 

Being overly empathetic towards others can affect your own well-being. It is possible to pick up other people’s stress by feeling so bad about their situation. A big danger of collective trauma is collective sadness which can feel like you are being smothered by a blanket of sadness. 

Here are some more reasons why collective trauma is difficult to deal with.

  1. It is sudden and unpredictable. Nobody knows what to expect. 
  2. Confusion. Lack of information, misinformation, or confusing information can trigger  stress in anyone. When leadership gives mixed messages, everyone becomes more confused. 
  3. Feeling out of control. With the intrusion of this new, still somewhat unknown virus, we must wait for the doctors and scientists to get control of it. Not knowing personal risk factors, treatment options, and so on, increases everyone’s stress.
  4. Feeling like it’s never going to end. When there is not a predictable end point to something like Covid-19, it can feel like it’s going to last forever. And that can stir feelings of hopelessness. 
  5. Grief. To one degree or another, everyone is grieving for what life once was, the “old normal.” Every community has lost a sense of normalcy with social distancing and shelter in place orders. For children, it can be especially challenging as they don’t understand why they no longer can be with their friends or play at the playground. Someone who usually finds walking on the beach or hiking a favorite trail to be a soothing ritual then all of a sudden loses access, experiences a normal feeling of loss: something once cherished has become out of reach. 
  6. Isolation. As humans, we aren’t meant to be alone. We need connection with others. Social distancing has caused many people to isolate and as a result, feel disconnected from others, and perhaps even from themselves. 

What can you do to ease the stress?

  1.  Understand and validate your feelings. Watch out for your negative self-talk, as that can make you feel worse. Stay connected to your heart by validating your feelings and not judging your reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic. Share your feelings with those who will not judge you. 
  2. Writing down your feelings can be a helpful way to deal with the stress and trauma. When you talk or write about what happened (or is happening) to you, you access the more logical part of your brain. And you can access the more emotional part of your brain by writing or talking about your feelings or expressing them, for example, through art. 
  3. Don’t make drastic life changes in the midst of any crisis.
  4. Don’t give up on yourself by over eating or using substances to numb your feelings.
  5. Don’t be surprised if your past trauma feels as if it is happening again, triggered by the current crisis. 
  6. Take care of your body. Most people are not used to thinking of their body as contributing to their emotional well-being. They see their bodies as only physical. They don’t understand or feel the connection between their body and emotions. However, there’s a vital connection between the two. Mindful walks, yoga, and tai chi are some of the ways to calm your body and your nervous system.
  7. Stay connected to your loved ones and your community. If social distancing is recommended, call or text, write letters or emails, or connect via video media all on a regular basis. 
  8. Connect to nature. Find ways to be outdoors and notice the beauty of nature. And don’t forget to connect with your spirituality or God in whatever way is meaningful to you. Many religious and spiritual groups have regular meetings and services online. 

The truth is every reaction to this and other crises is individual and everyone’s feelings should be respected rather than judged. So be gentle with yourself no matter what. We all need support now more than ever (and that includes supporting ourselves internally). As Buddha stated, “You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”

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