Psychology•November 3, 2022
“Trauma” has been a term that has popped up in more discussions now than ever before, but what about “collective trauma?” Read on to learn about collective trauma and see how it is shaping our society.
During the past two years, events such as the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to a collective trauma spread across the globe. Some of us lost loved ones or suffered negative consequences from the disease, while others got fired from their jobs.
There was a lot of despair and uncertainty. We were robbed of one of the most precious resources that helped us thrive, human connection. In addition, when we finally almost got over the pandemic, the United States was starting to face a recession.
It might seem that the impact of these events is more than we could ever handle. However, human beings have always dealt with traumatic experiences. Across history, there were many natural disasters, widespread diseases, and challenges that we had to face to survive, yet we trumped over all of them.
They shaped us into becoming who we are today and built our resilience. We survived because we learned that relying on each other makes us stronger and happier and that there is a lot of meaning in helping others. That understanding has to be remembered once more because together, we can face almost anything that life throws at us.
Collective trauma is a shared psychological and emotional reaction to a catastrophic event affecting a very large number of people. The people surviving these terrible experiences not only have bad memories but also suffer by trying to make sense of them through mental reconstructions of the traumatic events.
The possible causes of collective traumas include:
All possible causes for collective traumatic experiences have one thing in common. They have the power to significantly alter the functioning of a community, leading to negative consequences.
The distress brought by the collective experience of a traumatic event can impact the individual and alter the rules and principles of an entire community. People experience the following:
Changed beliefs and psychological distress:
As a result of collective trauma, people can change their views of the world. For example, trauma survivors can become hopeless about the future and end up fearful of potential threats. Furthermore, they can experience symptoms of psychological distress such as flashbacks, insomnia, panic attacks, and others.
According to a Pew Research Center survey, there were significant changes in opinion and other harsh consequences as a result of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11. The attack led to the death of nearly 3000 victims and left a lot of people feeling powerless.
After the event, around 63% of Americans said they couldn’t stop watching the media coverage of the attacks, 71% felt depressed, 49% had difficulty concentrating, and 33% had trouble sleeping. In October 2001, 60% of adults expressed trust in the federal government, a level that had not been reached in the previous three decades.
In the following days after the attack, majorities favored a requirement that all citizens carry national ID cards, and a month later, after 9/11, the USA started a military campaign in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, there were some measures that the general population (77% of people) opposed, such as the monitoring of American citizens' emails and phone calls.
A series of traumatic memories and experiences passed from one generation to another, leading to negative psychological and emotional consequences such as hopelesness, fear, anxiety, depression, and others.
In a study with 484 participants that were the adult children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, it was revealed that 35% of them had a generalized anxiety disorder, 26% went through a major depressive episode, and 14% of them had PTSD.³
In another qualitative study, the intergenerational impact of the 1932-1933 Holomodor genocide on three generations in 15 Ukrainian families was investigated. The results show that a vast array of emotions, inner states, and trauma-based coping strategies emerged in the survivors during the genocide period, and they were transmitted into the second and third generations.
These psychological, emotional, and physiological reactions were summarized by participants as living in “survival mode,” and they included fear, mistrust, sadness, decreased self-worth, overrating, social hostility, and others.⁴
Strict governmental policy changes:
After the terrorist attack from 9/11, the United States government implemented more harsh immigration policy measures to respond to future threats of terrorism.
These measures implied new border security and law enrolment initiatives, heightened visa controls, and screening of international travelers. These measures were taken because all 19 terrorists associated with the 9/11 attack were foreign nationals who entered the country through legal travel channels.
Fear and overexposure to media news:
The consequences of a collective trauma not only impact the direct survivors of the traumatic event but also affect groups of people that are indirectly exposed to it. For instance, the case of the “Boston Marathon Bombings” is a tragedy where two terrorists planted two pressure-cooker bombs and detonated them near the finish line, killing three spectators and injuring more than 260 other people. Both terrorists have been caught. One was sent to prison, while the other died in a shooting exchange with the police.
There is research showing that people who were exposed to several hours of media coverage of the “Boston Marathon Bombings” had a higher acute stress response than those directly affected by the event. The researchers concluded that health providers should advise people showing stress symptoms to limit their time exposure to a highly publicized local or national trauma to protect their mental health condition.⁵ However, this doesn’t apply to all types of media. There is also media news that the public would benefit from engaging with.
According to one study, during the investigations of the Boston Marathon Bombings, the public was kept informed about the status of the investigation through social media by the Boston Police Department (BDP). They managed to inform people, calm their nerves, request assistance, and correct the information reported by the press. BDP also asked for public restrain in tweeting information from police scanners. Their interaction with the Boston community demonstrated trust and understanding, BDP being positively appreciated for an honest conversation with the public during a crisis.⁶
There are many ways people respond to a traumatic experience. Here are a few examples of psychological, physiological, and emotional symptoms:
These symptoms can result from changes in limbic system functioning and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, as well as neurotransmitter-related dysregulation of arousal and endogenous opioid systems.⁷
In addition, you can be stuck in a continuous fight or flight mode, an automatic physiological reaction that activates the sympathetic nervous system. This activation triggers a stress response preparing the body to fight or flee.
Activating the fight or flight response will make your body experience high levels of cortisol, tense your muscles, and increase your heart rate and other various physiological symptoms. In the face of a real threat, this response is normal. However, the issue comes when you constantly live in such a condition, as it could lead to psychosomatic issues and, in some cases, even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
When dealing with trauma, it might seem like there is no way out, and your life will always be hunted by the experience you’ve been through. However, there are many ways you can handle it and even overcome the traumatic experience. Here are a few examples:
In addition to the seven ways of dealing with trauma mentioned, you can also consider therapy as an option.
The traumatic events that affect people can leave emotional and psychological scars that can haunt the survivors of a tragedy for most of their life. Talking and sharing their feelings with a therapist can be highly beneficial for their mental health.
A study of the effectiveness of psychodynamic therapy in treating PTSD showed that the therapy helped people improve their self-esteem, increased their ability to solve reactions to trauma, and improved their social functioning. A follow-up with the participants showed a continued improvement in their symptoms even after the therapy had ended.¹¹ Furthermore, a systematic review of 39 randomized clinical trials revealed that psychodynamic therapy is efficient for a wide range of mental ailments.¹²
Regardless of the way you choose to handle the traumatic experience you’ve been through, there are several fundamental principles you should keep in mind. Being open about your feelings, choosing to be part of a community, and relying on other people, as well as seeking help when you feel like you can’t take it anymore, is the best way to ensure healing in the long term.
If you want to learn more about what collective trauma means and how you can help people dealing with it, you can check out our online course or speak with an Admissions Advisor to learn more about our programs.
Collective trauma does exist, and it has multiple potential causes, such as mass shootings, terrorist attacks, wars, and others. The 9/11 terrorist attack is one example of collective trauma that significantly impacted the lives of the American people.
According to the results of a Pew Research Center Survey, there are various changes in people’s beliefs, such as the fact that 60% of adults expressed a level of trust in the federal government, which has never been seen before. Furthermore, 71% of Americans reported feeling depressed, 33% had sleep issues, and 49% found it difficult to concentrate.
In addition, in the following days after the attack, there was a governmental policy change forcing all American citizens to carry national ID cards, and a month after 9/11, the USA started a military campaign in Afghanistan.
Not all measures taken by the USA’s government have been favored by the public. Around 77% of people opposed monitoring American citizens’ phone calls and emails.
Collective trauma refers to a shared psychological and emotional reaction to a terrible event affecting a large number of people or even an entire society. On the other hand, individual trauma refers to a single individual's psychological and emotional reactions.
The distress brought by a collective trauma can alter the workings of a society and lead to negative consequences, such as:
There is a vast array of possible emotional, psychological, and psychological consequences resulting from an individual’s traumatic experience. Here are a few examples:
Many people believe that there isn’t a way to deal with trauma and they just have to live with it for the rest of their lives. However, there are many ways to approach healing from a traumatic experience, such as:
According to research, there are five types of childhood trauma a person can experience: