While most of us are familiar with the meaning of the word trauma, you may have not heard of the term “collective trauma.” The easiest way to conceptualize the meaning of collective trauma is to simply look back over the past three years. The entire world was swept up in a collective trauma, namely, the pandemic. Let’s take a deeper dive into the concept of collective trauma.
What is collective trauma?
Trauma refers to the emotional aftermath that follows after experiencing or witnessing a frightening or shocking event. Examples of traumatic events include physical or sexual assault, a serious car accident, the sudden unexpected death of a loved one, receiving a devastating medical diagnosis, a disaster like a flood or fire and other horrible events.
Collective trauma, on the other hand, refers to experiencing a traumatic event that impacts large portions of society. Whereas an individual’s traumatic experience affects them deeply for years, a collective trauma impacts entire communities on both the individual level and a societal level. Examples of collective trauma include pandemics, natural disasters, war, famine or financial collapse.
The effects of collective trauma on a community, nation or even the world can be significant. These are events that have the potential to reshape society and rewrite history while also permeating the lives of those living in the affected community.
Living through a collective trauma
As a nation, we have lived through some devastating events in recent years, such as 9/11 in 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. While those events directly impacted people living in New York or Louisiana, the pain and suffering were felt across the country. Everyone was deeply affected by these collective traumas.
The pandemic that began in late 2019 and surged around the globe for the next three years was collective trauma on a vast scale. The fear generated by the thought of contracting COVID-19 moved through one country after another, and the unpredictable nature of the virus has kept citizens on edge for years now.
As much as the virus itself frightened people, the lockdown measures that were taken forced hundreds of millions of people to quickly adapt to reduced freedoms and mobility. Parents were asked to work from home and children had to learn at home. All of the effects of this collective trauma took a heavy toll on mental health and general well-being worldwide.
What coping measures can you use during a collective trauma event?
As the saying goes, “Drastic times call for drastic measures.” Here in the U.S. and in societies around the world, COVID-19 challenged people to adopt new coping techniques during the pandemic. Some examples of coping measures included:
- Mental health and substance recovery services shifted to online platforms to be able to provide a continuum of care.
- Groceries were ordered online and delivered to your front doorstep.
- Restaurants created outdoor patio seating to prevent the spread of the virus indoors.
Each individual responded to the pandemic in a unique way. While some people were quite resilient, others struggled. Social isolation and job losses led to high rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse. To this day, the effects of living through collective trauma are still present. In fact, people continue to grapple with the impact of the pandemic — post-traumatic stress syndrome on a societal level.
Since no one can predict the impact trauma will have before it occurs, the best we can do is learn from this recent collective trauma. We have learned the importance of caring for each other, taking care of ourselves and reaching out for support during difficult events.