Collective Trauma: Meaning & Implications

“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.

Collective Trauma - Overcoming the Shared Suffering

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.

What is Collective Trauma?

Several people comforting a woman that shows signs of distress.

You don’t need to suffer alone.

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:

  • Natural disasters
  • Mass shootings
  • Pandemics
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Wars
  • Economical recessions

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 Consequences of Collective Trauma

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.

Transgenerational suffering:

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

The individual impact of trauma

There are many ways people respond to a traumatic experience. Here are a few examples of psychological, physiological, and emotional symptoms:

  • Confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Anger
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares and flashbacks
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Fatigue

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).

How you can heal from trauma

Man standing on the top of a mountain with his arms wide open.

You can overcome a traumatic experience.

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:

  • Mindfulness. A state of non-judgemental present-focused awareness of the totality of experience, attending it moment by moment. Mindfulness is a meditative practice that teaches people to moderate their trauma responses, accept their thoughts and feelings, and be less affected by them.⁸
  • Sleep. It is highly important in the aftermath of a traumatic experience to establish a proper sleep routine, as a lot of individuals tend to have problems with it. According to research, sleep problems affect 50% to 80% of patients in a typical psychiatric practice. Most people need 7-8 hours of sleep, which is essential for mental health.
  • Exercise. A review of four randomized clinical trials investigating the impact of regular exercise on post-traumatic stress disorder showed that it greatly reduces depressive symptoms and is beneficial for people with PTSD.⁹
  • Relationships. Human relationships are extremely important in dealing with trauma. One study with 545 participants showed that perceived social support decreased the severity of PTSD symptoms and increased the resilience of the participants. Furthermore, one of the longest psychological studies conducted by Harvard showed that the quality of close relationships is the best predictor for happiness.
  • Joining a support group. You are not alone in dealing with the effects of a traumatic experience. There are others who also deal with similar problems, and hearing a group of people talking about them, might give you insights into how to solve yours. In addition, it might be liberating to be able to share your feelings and to talk to other people about what happened.
  • Community. Being part of a community and helping others can benefit someone dealing with a traumatic experience. It can help people find meaning and purpose, increase resilience, and provide comfort.
  • Practice gratitude. It might seem impossible in the aftermath of a tragedy to be grateful for anything. However, there are always things in your life that still matter and you should cherish. In one randomized control trial, with 293 participants seeking university-based psychotherapy services, it was shown that writing gratitude letters improved the participants' mental health.

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.


  1. Hirschberger, G. (2018). Collective trauma and the social construction of meaning. Frontiers in psychology, 1441.
  2. Erikson, K. (1976). Everything in its path. Simon and Schuster.
  3. Danieli, Y., Norris, F. H., & Engdahl, B. (2017). A question of who, not if: Psychological disorders in Holocaust survivors’ children. Psychological trauma: Theory, research, practice, and policy, 9(S1), 98.
  4. Bezo, B., & Maggi, S. (2015). Living in “survival mode:” Intergenerational transmission of trauma from the Holodomor genocide of 1932–1933 in Ukraine. Social Science & Medicine, 134, 87-94.
  5. Holman, E. A., Garfin, D. R., & Silver, R. C. (2014). Media’s role in broadcasting acute stress following the Boston Marathon bombings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(1), 93-98.
  6. Davis, E. F., Alves, A. A., & Sklansky, D. A. (2014). Social media and police leadership: Lessons from Boston. Australasian policing, 6(1), 10-16.
  7. Sherin, J. E., & Nemeroff, C. B. (2022). Post-traumatic stress disorder: the neurobiological impact of psychological trauma. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience.
  8. Ganesan, A., Gauthaman, J., & Kumar, G. (2022). The Impact of Mindfulness Meditation on the Psychosomatic Spectrum of Oral Diseases: Mapping the Evidence. Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 12(1), 1.
  9. Rosenbaum, S., Vancampfort, D., Steel, Z., Newby, J., Ward, P. B., & Stubbs, B. (2015). Physical activity in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychiatry research, 230(2), 130-136.
  10. Wong, Y. J., Owen, J., Gabana, N. T., Brown, J. W., McInnis, S., Toth, P., & Gilman, L. (2018). Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Psychotherapy Research, 28(2), 192-202.
  11. Schottenbauer, M. A., Glass, C. R., Arnkoff, D. B., & Gray, S. H. (2008). Contributions of psychodynamic approaches to treatment of PTSD and trauma: A review of the empirical treatment and psychopathology literature. Psychiatry, 71(1), 13-34.
  12. Leichsenring, F., Rabung, S., & Leibing, E. (2004).The efficacy of short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy in specific psychiatric disorders: a meta-analysis.Archives of general psychiatry 61(12), 1208-1216.

People Also Ask

Does collective trauma exist?

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.

How is collective trauma different from individual trauma?

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:

  • Changed beliefs and psychological distress
  • Transgenerational suffering
  • Strict governmental policy changes
  • Fear and overexposure to media news

There is a vast array of possible emotional, psychological, and psychological consequences resulting from an individual’s traumatic experience. Here are a few examples:

  • Hyperarousal: In the aftermath of a traumatic event, a person can be stuck in a state of continuous flight or flight. This physiological reaction prepares a person’s body to fight or flee, and it’s helpful when facing a real threat. However, it can be detrimental to constantly live in survival mode because the stress associated with it damages a person’s body and mind.
  • Low-self esteem. Trauma survivors might excessively blame themselves and take responsibility for something they couldn’t control, damaging their self-esteem.
  • Sleep issues. A traumatic event can make people experience flashbacks and nightmares, significantly diminishing the quality of their sleep.
  • Substance abuse. Whether it is alcohol or other drugs, a person might try to use them in order to cope with their traumatic memories.

How do you heal from collective trauma?

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:

  • Mindfulness. Mindfulness is a meditative practice that helps people be less reactive to their environment, better control their emotions, and enjoy their day-to-day life. It implies observing one’s thoughts and other sensory perceptions without judgment.
  • Sleep. According to research, most psychiatric patients suffer from sleep issues. Establishing a proper sleep routine is important in the aftermath of a traumatic experience, as many individuals tend to have problems with it. A proper sleep routine should lead to getting seven to eight hours of sleep per night.
  • Exercise. Regular exercise has been shown in a scientific review to be highly beneficial for post-traumatic stress disorder, as it reduces people’s depressive symptoms.
  • Practice gratitude. In the aftermath of a tragedy, it might seem impossible for a trauma survivor to find things to be grateful for. However, there are always things in a person's life that matter and they are worth being grateful for, such as family or a relationship. One study with 293 participants revealed that writing gratitude letters improved the participant’s mental health.

What are the 5 types of trauma?

According to research, there are five types of childhood trauma a person can experience:

  1. Emotional abuse. Behaviors that negatively impact a child's self-worth and emotional development. For example, a parent could threaten, humiliate and belittle a child. According to a report compiled by the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, about 2,3% of children experienced emotional abuse.
  2. Emotional neglect. A parent's failure to meet the children's emotional needs, such as affection, support, and attention. A longitudinal study showed that emotional neglect is associated with poor self-esteem, increased maladaptive behaviors, and psychopathology in adulthood.
  3. Physical abuse. It refers to the infliction of bodily injuries that cause significant or severe pain, leaves physical evidence, and jeopardize the child’s safety. Empirical studies show that 18% of children experience physical abuse.
  4. Physical neglect. The parent’s failure to take care of a child’s basic needs for survival, such as nutrition, clothing, medical care, and others. Furthermore, it also implies inadequate supervision of the child and disregarding the child’s safety. There is empirical data showing that 78% of children suffer from neglect.
  5. Sexual abuse. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, child sexual abuse refers to “any interaction between a child and an adult (or another child) in which the child is used for the sexual stimulation of the perpetrator or an observer. Sexual abuse can include both touching and non-touching behaviors.” There are estimates showing that about 8% of children are sexually abused.

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