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Collective trauma: Developing resilience in the aftermath

September 30, 2022 - 19 min read

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What is collective trauma?

Common causes of collective trauma

5 examples of collective trauma

COVID-19 and collective trauma

Effects of collective trauma on mental health

How collective trauma influences communities

How groups create meaning out of collective trauma

How to heal from collective trauma

When a generation lives through events so devastating that they defined an era, it’s called collective trauma (or in other words, shared trauma).

When we experience things together — whether positive or negative — we’re bound by the shared memory of that experience. Recently, for example, our lives forever changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. No matter who you were, you couldn’t escape the impacts of this global phenomenon.  

Understanding society's reactions to past traumatic experiences can help us understand how our lives — and outlooks — can change as a result. Let’s take a look.

What is collective trauma?

Collective trauma is the psychological distress that a group — usually an entire culture, community, or another large group of people — experience in response to a shared trauma. In order to impact the entire group, such traumas are usually devastating in their scope and impact.

According to a 2018 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, the collective processing of shared trauma is a “dynamic social psychological process that is primarily dedicated to the construction of meaning.” 

In other words, it’s constructed from people’s attempts to make sense of and contextualize the traumatic event. 

The good news is that challenges are an opportunity to grow and change. Just as we can reframe adversity on an individual level, communities that show adaptability and resilience can grow in the face of overwhelming odds.

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Common causes of collective trauma

Any adverse event that is experienced, witnessed by, or affects a large group of people can cause collective trauma. These events can have an impact on society as well. 

Such experiences are often the catalyst for changes in policy, national sentiment, and even trickle down to decisions as personal as whether or not to have kids.

This could be because, according to sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, human memory mainly functions in a collective context. Events throughout history, including but not limited to the traumatic ones, have been processed by social groups and built into their collective identity. 

These events live in a group’s collective memory long after the actual trauma has resolved. That impacts the decisions people make, the values they hold, and the way they live.  

 Here are a few examples of events that can cause collective trauma: 

  • War, occupation, and other military conflicts

  • Terrorist attacks

  • Pandemics and epidemics

  • Recessions and depressions

  • Genocide and religious persecution

  • Racial trauma, misogyny, apartheid, and class-based violence

  • Mass killings

  • Hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters

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5 examples of collective trauma

The idea of growing through a traumatic collective experience can be difficult to understand in the abstract. It’s helpful to look at some real examples of historical trauma that defined generations.

1. The Great Depression

Starting with the famous Black Tuesday market crash, the Great Depression of the 1930s was the most severe in modern American history.

Many of us are keenly aware of the psychological impact that this experience left on our grandparents and great-grandparents. “Depression-era children,” as they’re often called, are famously concerned with stability — but they’re also resourceful and resilient.

2. The Holocaust

The persecution and genocide that the Jewish population faced at the hands of the Nazi party left an impact that lasted generations. Research on Holocaust survivors found that symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and decreased well-being continued for decades. 

However, in the years following the Holocaust, the Jewish community also displayed remarkable resilience, close family ties, and a deeper connection to their faith.

3. The assassination of MLK

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death profoundly shook the Black community, changing the direction and shape of the Civil Rights Movement. Many people were shell-shocked that a man preaching love and non-violence would be killed. 

The effect ricocheted for generations. Even if they weren’t alive during King’s lifetime, many Black people feel stirrings of this fear when they see a Black person in a position of power.

4. September 11th, 2001 (9/11)

After the September 11th attacks in New York City, a fundamental sense of safety and ease was disrupted around the world. Many believe the resulting emotional impact helped President Bush justify the decision to go to war

Twenty years later, the daily lives of Americans are still impacted by the experience of 9/11. Many are afraid to fly, go into skyscrapers, and harbor anti-Muslim sentiment. However, stories from 9/11 are also filled with incredible acts of selflessness and support.

5. Sandy Hook

The shooting at the Newtown elementary school was sadly not the first, nor the last such massacre, but it was profound in its impact on people throughout the country. 

The name “Sandy Hook” is kind of a shorthand for the horrific nature of mass shootings. Even those who aren’t directly affected by the shooting often develop symptoms of PTSD. Every attack within a school that follows retriggers the collective fear and dis-ease around safety in large groups.

COVID-19 and collective trauma

Collective trauma is distinctive in the scale of its impact, but rarely does an experience affect the entire global community. The coronavirus pandemic was one of those “once-in-a-century” moments. 

The pandemic increased feelings of anguish and PTSD among the general population. Research on previous pandemics, like ebola and SARS, show increased stress, anxiety, and depression after an outbreak. And extended lockdowns caused isolation, loneliness, and anger for both adults and children.

But — as the saying goes — with darkness comes light. Not all changes as a result of the pandemic were negative. 

BetterUp’s research found that some areas of growth — namely self-awareness, empathy, authenticity, stress management, and locus of control — actually accelerated during COVID.  

And surprisingly, even though the pandemic is still an ongoing stressor, people generally believe that the experience has changed them for the better.

Effects of collective trauma on mental health

The impact of collective trauma can seep into our daily lives. And if we don’t know how to identify the effects, we won’t know how to heal. 

For example, research from Frontiers in Psychiatry found that after a wildfire, mental health symptoms increased among members of the community — and symptoms remained heightened up to 3.5 years after the event. 

Below are a few mental health conditions that can arise as a result of collective trauma. 

1. Psychological distress

In most cases, people that experience a large-scale traumatic event display signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Many of them also show decreased levels of wellness, feelings of insecurity or being unsafe, and high stress. 

2. Anxiety disorders 

Trauma is hard on our nervous systems, and collective trauma is no different. PTSD can trigger panic attacks and crippling anxiety around activities related to the trauma (like going on a plane after 9/11). 

No matter how the anxiety is triggered, it’s important to recognize it and learn to cope. If these symptoms affect your quality of life, it may be time to seek the help of a mental healthcare professional. 

3. Low self-esteem 

If you struggle with self-esteem no matter what your loved ones tell you, it could be caused by collective trauma. Many studies have shown links between trauma and lower rates of self-esteem.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a great example of this. Stay-at-home orders left many people socially isolated. Now that we’re able to go out into the world again, however, some individuals may experience social anxiety or a lack of confidence when reconnecting with others. 

4. Existential crisis

When bad things happen, it’s not always easy to make sense of it or figure out how to move on. This can trigger an existential crisis. People — or entire communities — can feel untethered, doubt their beliefs, or be unsure of their place in the world.

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How collective trauma influences communities

Since the nature of collective trauma is that it affects entire groups, let’s take a look at the ways it influences communities. 

1. Xenophobia

Trauma and the resulting fear can cause us to feel unsafe with people outside of our immediate group or community. This is especially true for systemic inequities, like police brutality, gender-based violence, and other hate crimes. 

People may fear the group they associate with the event, like the abuse targeted at members of the Asian community during COVID.

2. Generational trauma

When people experience trauma, they learn, adapt, grow — and pass those experiences on to their children. It’s hard to not internalize such major experiences as part of “the way life is.” 

While their children benefit from their wisdom, they also struggle with the weight of that internalized paradigm. It can lead to increased anxiety, detachment, and a reduced sense of belonging.

3. Distrust and violence

Research has shown that trauma can lead to “increased distrust and perceived threat from others.” This is especially true for survivors of childhood abuse, but we’ve also seen it happen on a larger scale. For example, the mass collective trauma that occurred in 2020 with the killing of George Floyd by a police officer

Resulting police distrust has had a major impact, even being linked to higher rates of gun violence. This example shows that if we don’t know how to heal and address collective trauma, it can lead to serious consequences. 

4. Increased creativity 

Collective trauma isn’t just negative though  — there are actually many positive outcomes for communities after a challenging shared experience. 

For example, the COVID-19 pandemic inspired new levels of creativity around the world. From restaurants that built outdoor dining structures to the doctors who repurposed snorkels as protective gear, communities responded to obstacles with innovation. 

On a deeper level, the pandemic taught the healthcare industry valuable policy and preparation lessons that will be implemented for years — and in the long run, improve the care that patients receive.   

5. Strengthened community relationships 

We’ve all seen communities on the news come together after a traumatic event. Whether it’s holding prayer vigils or creating memorials with pictures and stuffed animals, we know that we need each other when these events happen. 

But collective trauma strengthens community ties on an even deeper level, whether it’s fighting together for social change or organizing support groups. For example, the students who survived the 2018 Parkland school shooting came together in a movement that ultimately led U.S. states to pass 50 new gun control laws that year.

How groups create meaning out of collective trauma 

The experiences that trigger collective trauma are often — but not always — brief in length. It’s the impact that lingers, and it’s our understanding of what happened, and why, that determines the extent of the trauma response.

In his article “Collective Trauma and the Social Construction of Meaning,” researcher Gilad Hirschberger details the ways in which groups subject to a collective trauma derive meaning from the experience. 

The findings are complex but — put simply — he found that passing down awareness of threats helps to preserve the safety of the group. 

Over time, the collective identification with the threat becomes part of the context for the group, making it difficult to separate the trauma from the group’s identity. 

This isn’t a particularly rosy outlook. On one hand, it serves a purpose in both protecting the group and “alleviating existential threat.” 

On the other, it freezes the group in victimhood. Moving forward means that you risk separating from the group, and there’s a social threat inherent in losing part of your identity.

So why would a group cling to a painful past? There’s a real fear that letting go of the experience means exposing yourself to repeated trauma. This “fool me once, fool me twice” approach leaves people — and entire communities — in a state of being always on guard. 

This chronic stress (and subsequently, constant activation of the fight/flight response) may bring a tenuous feeling of safety, but it comes at a heavy price.

How to heal from collective trauma

The events that cause collective trauma are heavy. It can be tempting to repress our emotions and dismiss our individual experiences.

If you weren’t directly impacted by an event (for example, if you weren’t in New York during 9/11), you might not take the time to fully address your own experience of trauma. 

This is dangerous, however, because repressing trauma can have negative consequences on your mental and physical health — it can even increase your susceptibility to stroke, heart attack, and cancer

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, here’s what a resilient response to trauma looks like:

  • Increased bonding with family and community

  • Redefined or increased sense of purpose

  • Revised priorities

  • Increased charitable giving and volunteerism

  • Increased commitment to a personal mission

When you’re still processing your memories of trauma, however, these healthy responses can be difficult. Here are a few ways to start healing from collective trauma, so you can move forward.

1. Reach out for help

Reach out for support. Let people know how you’re feeling and how they can help. Consider getting professional help from a therapist or coach. They’ll be able to spot the signs of PTSD if they arise and make sure you’re getting appropriate care. 

2. Stop doom-scrolling

During the COVID lockdowns, droves of people — stuck at home and with reduced contact — suddenly had hours to consume every bit of coronavirus-related news they could find. It’s an action that only takes a little bit of effort, but can have a disproportionately negative impact on your mood.

Resist the urge to stay on social media for hours at a time. It can make you feel more informed and connected in the short-term, but far more hopeless in the long term.

3. Look for the silver lining

Every community that’s experienced trauma has one thing in common — they develop resilience coming out of it. Crises provide a disruption to the status quo. While we don’t look forward to them — or welcome the losses they bring — looking for the bright side is an important part of preserving our mental health as we move forward.

Moving forward after trauma

Facing the trauma we experience as a community can be intense. But if we can learn to be resilient, we can experience the life-changing benefits of overcoming our toughest challenges. 

If you’re struggling to process trauma, remember that you’re not alone. You can take your healing journey one step at a time. The most important thing is to ask for the support you need, when you need it.

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Published September 30, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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