Will it ever end? First Covid-19, then economic shutdown, and now the cries for racial justice. We are living in collective trauma. We can flip the channel or isolate in our homes, but that is a response to trauma, and does nothing to insulate us from the bombardment. So, what is our response-ability?
As a disclaimer, I am not a clinical therapist. I am one among millions walking through this landscape, learning to navigate it as best I am able right alongside of you. It has had a lasting impact on how I see myself, and my place in society.
Trauma science itself is a relatively new field, beginning in the 1990’s. As our world population experiences wide-spread terrorism, disasters, and pandemics, larger groups than ever before are feeling the effects of acute psychological trauma. Alongside those traumas, multiple generations have been affected directly by the trauma of war and racism. Studying this has never been more important. A therapy degree is not required to empower ourselves with some level of understanding, and share this awareness with others to begin the healing process.
The Six Phases of Collective Trauma
While both collective trauma and individual trauma make it impossible to feel fully safe, and can create depression and/or aggressive behaviors, there are some distinct differences. If you have been wondering what is happening to you during all of this, and where all these messy emotions are coming from, read the following list and see how normal your responses actually are!
Pre-disaster phase: Characterized by fear, uncertainty, vulnerability, lack of security, loss of control and guilt or self-blame.
Impact phase: Characterized by a range of emotions, shock, panic, confusion, disbelief and self-preservation.
Heroic phase: Characterized by altruism resulting in high activity, but low productivity with some risk-assessment impairment.
Honeymoon phase: Characterized by a collective sentiment of community bonding, optimism and rapport building.
Disillusionment phase: Characterized by realized limitations of communal efforts, discouragement, continued stress, feelings of abandonment, physical exhaustion and negative coping reactions such as substance use and abuse.
Reconstruction phase: Characterized by overall feelings of recovery, adjustment and rebuilding while continuing to grieve losses.
There is no conclusive evidence about how long these phases can take – especially when we are speaking about traumas around racism towards an entire segment of a population. Our natural inclination is to try to race through the process (as with any change or healing) in order to “feel better” as soon as is humanly possible. Except, now we are not dealing with the individual. We are dealing with entire populations. This will take a concerted and collaborative effort.
As an example, many individuals in my father’s generation, who lived through the severe financial deprivation of the Depression, have never recovered their sense of financial security, even when they have millions of dollars in assets. The trauma is greater than the reality. Our past experiences that felt like death, or worse, where we witnessed someone die (which most of us did recently) haunt us, and pull us back in.
Our First Response-Ability for Healing Collective Trauma
This might seem selfish or self-serving – however, in order to heal collective trauma, we must stabilize individually. It’s the old “put the oxygen mask on yourself first” analogy. Many of us naturally want to be a part of the collective healing, but we potentially risk making things worse for everyone, if we do it at our own expense. So, before you rush out to save the world, try doing some of these things first (care of Parkview Health):
Be patient and kind: This is true for yourself and others. Remember, a little grace and compassion go a long way.
Focus on what you can control: Do your best to let go of what you have no control over. Instead, focus on what you can manage like your words, actions, ideas, effort, mistakes and behaviors.
Breathe and take breaks: Try practicing 4-5-6 breathing. Breathe in for 4 seconds and out for 5 seconds for a minimum of 6 times. Naturally, your heart rate will decrease, and more oxygen will flow through your body up to your brain. You will have more time to think things through slowly and clearly.
Take care of your body: Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals, exercise regularly, get fresh air and sunshine when possible, and get plenty of sleep. Avoid alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and other drugs.
Communicate: It’s important to share your feelings and needs with others (friends, family or appropriate professionals). Be sure to maintain your healthy relationships and build a strong support system.
Break things down: If life begins to feel too overwhelming, write out what needs to be done. Then, break down those needs into specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely goals. When goals are broken down, they are less stress-inducing and more attainable.
Establish a routine: Try establishing a routine and schedule, something that makes you feel productive in your “new normal.” Wake up, practice good hygiene, change into “regular” clothes, eat meals at regular times and get ready for the day with your goal in mind.
Stay informed: Connect with reliable and official sources of information. Avoid rumors, especially on social media, and always check your sources.
Know your limits: Unplug when necessary. Also, try to do new and enjoyable activities to keep your mind active and engaged.
Change-Ability Happens in Communities
There is so much we still don’t know about collective trauma. What is clear that the best healing happens among the members of the communities that are affected. Organizing with others, and seeking ways to restore order collectively re-establishes the empowerment and sense of trust that trauma destroys.
Ensuring we, as members of the public and/or as fellow survivors, commemorate and support those who have survived (made it through the pandemic, lived through racial injustice, etc.) is crucial to the healing process. Also seeking social justice for those who were attacked and/or suffered; seeking collective improvements to reduce risk of future trauma; and building memorials that are permanent in place of temporary ones is a matter of deep, restorative importance.
Interestingly, the rituals and symbols are extremely important to recognize what has happened, and that there is grieving we must do. For instance, symbolic reminders of the tragedy (e.g., flowers and cards at a particular location), slogans promoting restoration (e.g., #BlackLivesMatter) and ceremonies of remembrance, all help us to be present with one another.
Healing naturally becomes extremely difficult when an entire nation is impacted. However, the consequences of not addressing it can be even more damaging. Unaddressed trauma remains chronic, and reproduces itself when the underlying causes are not addressed. The whole society ends up suffering indefinitely in a culture of pain.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing collective trauma, and the rehabilitation methods are unique to each circumstance. Collective trauma can be alleviated through cohesive and collective efforts, such as recognition, remembrance, solidarity, communal therapy and massive cooperation.
To understand more about the lasting impact of collective trauma, and the spiritual component of healing it, watch this YouTube talk “Healing Collective Trauma” by spiritual leader and trauma expert, Thomas Hübl.