Collective Trauma: Definition, Effects, & How to Heal (2023)

What Is Collective Trauma?

When a traumatic occurrence happens to an entire group of people and impacts them in much the same way, collective trauma has occurred.1 This collective trauma can change a community of people to the very core, to the extent that it changes every dynamic of its functioning and all of its relationships within itself and with others.2

Collective Trauma: Definition, Effects, & How to Heal (1)“When trauma is experienced collectively the impact is collective. As a result of collective trauma multiple people in a community, or in the case of a global pandemic, people all over the world, are at risk for experiencing the physical and emotional effects of the trauma. If not addressed, collective trauma leads to new societal norms born out of the negative effects of trauma such as fear, anxiety, hopelessness, and avoidance.”7Dr. Jacqueline Mack-Harris, PsyD, LMFT

Entire societies can be impacted, as well as families or groups of friends. It can be noted that the family or friend groups are probably the most common groups to experience collective trauma in everyday life.

What Events Cause Collective Trauma?

Throughout history, groups of people have suffered many painful injuries. Most of us have heard some of these events that caused collective traumatic experiences:

  • Trail of Tears
  • The Holocaust
  • Slavery
  • Japanese internment
  • Mass shootings
  • The migrant detention centers at our borders

Other types of human error can cause collective trauma, as well. There are countless disasters such as aviation and railroad accidents and others. Some of the more notable are:

  • Chernobyl
  • Bhopal
  • Deepwater
  • Exxon
  • BP oil spill in the Gulf
  • the sinking of the Titanic

Traumatic events do not just occur at the hands of other humans, though. Nature can create her own traumatic events, such as:

  • Earthquakes
  • Hurricanes
  • Tornadoes
  • Typhoons
  • Volcanic eruptions

In our own recent history, as Americans, we have experienced several traumatic events throughout our history. More recently, a few examples come to mind: 9/11 is a date that is forever etched in our memory. Racism continually impacts groups of people in painful ways, and George Floyd is a name that will not be soon forgotten (along with so many other violent atrocities incited against Black Americans). Nor will things ever be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic. Not just our country, but the entire world has been impacted by the coronavirus.

(Video) Healing Collective Trauma

Collective Trauma & the Pandemic

Reactions to the pandemic are spread across the spectrum from healthy and resilient to unhealthy and destructive, and everything in between. The shutdowns have led to many people feeling shutdown themselves, in their own lives. The isolation felt during social distancing led to unbearable feelings of isolation for some. The financial impact was devastating for millions. Many people took up drinking or increased their substance use in an effort to cope with increased stress in their lives. Social media has allowed us to witness these reactions from people all over the globe.

However, technology has also afforded us the opportunity to connect with virtually anyone we choose. This has allowed us to connect with others during social distancing, to educate others about the coronavirus and its impact, and to express our fears, outrage, or even our humor about any dynamic of the pandemic. We can use technology to remind each other that we are not alone. Togetherness makes the difficult times bearable.

The Long-Term Effects of Collective Trauma

Shared traumatic experiences can impact people and communities in many ways. This impact is not always felt evenly across the individuals within the group, meaning that the same traumatic event may, and often does, impact one person more severely than another person.

Collective Trauma: Definition, Effects, & How to Heal (2)“Besides the emotional and psychological impact of such events on individuals, collective traumas often fundamentally alter the way that people relate to one another. Communities may have to adjust to a new way of life and, at times, forge a new social identity. In some cases, violence and suffering may become ingrained in communities’ identities; in others, community members may try to understand the origin of harmful events and advocate for accountability, education and public policies to ensure they do not happen again.”8 – Liana Tuller, PhD, Research Fellow at the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University

Mental Health

The general mental health of an individual lays the foundation for how a person will respond when disaster strikes because trauma isn’t what happens to you externally; it’s about what takes place internally.3 An easily relatable metaphor is a bank account—if you have a well-padded account, you will be better able to financially handle the emergencies that may arise. If you are already struggling financially, the next emergency might be the one that bankrupts you.

Mental health is very much the same. If you have a solid foundation of mental and emotional health and wellbeing, you will be better equipped to handle challenges and the upheaval that a traumatic event can bring. If you don’t have enough mental health resources, a traumatic event may lead to a wide variety of painful effects, such as PTSD, addictions, and other mental health disturbances.

Generational Effects

When your ancestors have experienced trauma and did not fully process or heal from that trauma, the possibility of inheriting trauma occurs. When this trauma is passed from one generation to the next it is referred to as intergenerational trauma. The effects can be quite devastating, as it often impacts an individual without an awareness of the source. If you feel that this may be a part of your story, working with a therapist can be a helpful resource to help you heal and start a new legacy.

(Video) What is Collective Trauma

Tuller says, “Sometimes, when communities’ restorative capacities are overwhelmed by massive traumas, their impact may be cross-generational. This can happen in various ways:

  • Through the epigenetic inheritance of trauma
  • Through parenting styles that are altered when adults struggle to process or try to compensate for harm
  • Through lasting economic impacts of harmful events
  • Through cultural prohibition and cultural change”

Relationships

Relationships are an important component of our lives. When relationships are healthy and happy, they are a helpful resource for us as we go through the difficult moments in life. When those relationships are chaotic and painful, they can become their own source of trauma and stress.

Collective trauma impacts relationships. They can be dramatically altered when one group of people learns to see its role with another group of people in a very different way. This viewpoint leads to behaviors that create a system to support those assumptions.1

6 Ways to Reduce the Impact of Collective Trauma

There are many ways to support yourself, your family, and your community when we’re going through a collective experience, such as the pandemic. The good news is that we are all experiencing the same types of challenges and impacts, which can foster understanding and empathy among ourselves. No one has to go through this alone.

Here are six things you can do to bolster yourself, your family, and your community after experiencing collective trauma:

1. Raise Your Awareness

Becoming aware is the first step. Whenever you use GPS to get anywhere, you must type in your current location. Awareness of your current location is essential to moving forward. Become aware of the impact that the event has had on you, your family, and all the various areas and people in your life.

Mack-Harris encourages, “After a traumatic experience it is helpful to get to a place where you identify as a survivor rather than a victim. Language is powerful so mind your self-talk.”

(Video) Healing Collective Trauma – Thomas Hübl

Become aware of how you feel about that impact by:

  • Talking with a trusted friend or therapist is helpful to this process.
  • Journaling to process your feelings. If security is an issue, using password protection on your phone or an online document, such as Google Docs, can be helpful.
  • Practicing mindfulness. It not only raises your awareness, but also lays the foundation for several physical, spiritual and mental health benefits as well.

2. Nurture Your Resilience

  • Practice authenticity:Being able to know and express your feelings is an important part of nurturing your resiliency.4 Talking with an emotionally-safe friend, joining a support group, writing in a journal, and meeting with a trusted therapist are all ways to express and nurture your authentic self.
  • Practice gratitude:Gratitude is an important component of happiness. Although there are many painful aspects of life after a tragedy or traumatic event, there are some things that we can be grateful for as well. Gratitude also indirectly bolsters our self-esteem, which is important in resiliency.
  • Practice humor:Laughter is a great way to bear the difficult things in life. How do you know if you are using humor appropriately? A simple rule of thumb is to ask yourself if you are using humor to hide from your pain or to help you “lean into” your pain.

3. Take Care of Your Body

It’s easy to forget the basics when we are stressed and depressed. There are many articles and books on the benefits of taking care of your physical health, so here is just a brief list:

  • Sleep: It’s important to make sure you are getting adequate sleep, which is 7 ½ -9 hours for most adults. Most people can agree that the world looks better after a good night’s sleep. The science backs this up, as well.
  • Water: Drinking enough water keeps your body hydrated and reduces the tendency to stress eat. Keeping your brain well hydrated is important to making your best decisions.
  • Nutrition: Especially important when we have a tendency to crave foods full of sugar or fat, balanced eating keeps our bodies functioning at their best.
  • Good posture: When we are stressed and depressed, we tend to hunch forward, blocking a free flow of oxygen. Try making even the smallest shifts in your posture—you will notice a difference.
  • Calming Bodywork: Bodywork that is helpful often focuses on breathwork, body awareness, and mindfulness, which calm the autonomic nervous system and facilitates the healing of trauma in the body.5
    There are many forms of bodywork that can explore, including:
    • Yoga (particularly trauma-sensitive yoga)
    • Massage
    • Tai Chi
    • Alexander Technique

4. Find Your Community

It’s important to find a group of people that we can “be real” with. We often filter ourselves for the people in our life, particularly if we are caretakers in any way. Our awareness of our impact on others causes us to edit or mask our feelings so that we can impact the people in our lives positively. There are others like us, making the same kinds of sacrifices for those we love in our lives. It’s important to find those people experiencing the same situations and emotions that we are, so we don’t get burnt out.6

Mack-Harris says, “People can reduce the effects of trauma by talking about it with others. Research has shown that people who have a strong healthy support system and access to resources immediately after the trauma are less likely to end up with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). We were created for relationship, and we heal in community.”

Tuller also emphasizes the importance of community, saying, “People who suffer from harmful events often experience isolation and shame. Understanding that others are going through the same thing may remove some of that stigma, which itself is a secondary harm emerging from trauma. In addition, viewing harmful events through a lens of critical reflection—understanding harm as a result of social injustice rather than personal failing—is often empowering.”

Group classes can be a powerful form of community. For example, taking a group trauma-sensitive yoga class can be a wonderful way to experience a collective healing process, or if your community offers it, you could pursue critical incident stress debriefing.

5. Find a Trauma-Informed Therapist

We don’t always feel comfortable talking about our negative or painful emotions with others for a variety of reasons. However, being able to do so is essential to our resiliency and mental health.6

(Video) Collective Trauma

We need to be authentic to ourselves. A therapist can help you create a safe space to explore the parts of you that can feel scary without judgment but with wise guidance, not allowing you to get stuck in the past or in blaming, but to explore the past’s impact on your life today.

A trained, trauma-informed therapist may utilize treatments such as:

  • EMDR
  • Somatic Experiencing
  • Mindfulness
  • Breathwork
  • Grounding Exercises

These treatment methods, and others, will help to move you out of your past trauma into a brighter present and future, free and joyful.

6. Take Part in Community Rebuilding

There are many ways that we can participate in community rebuilding. If you have the time or the resources, taking part in community rebuilding can be a rewarding experience. Supporting local businesses helps our local economies to thrive. Donating to charity doesn’t just have to be financially. Perfectly good items can be donated to your local thrift stores.

Closer to home might be activities like cooking a meal for a neighbor or friend or shopping for someone who may still not be able to get out. As social distancing restrictions lift, you may consider donating time to a local soup kitchen or other local organizations doing good in your community. You might find your local Habitat for Humanity chapter, which often has opportunities for volunteers to donate time to help build a new home.

Tuller also mentions the importance of activism for revitalizing a community: “People who emerge from difficult periods may use their unique experience and perspective to engage in activism, helping others who continue to suffer or speaking out to promote social justice. These people are said to experience posttraumatic growth—a transformation leading to an appreciation for life, personal strength, spiritual change, and a sense of meaning. Research suggests that participating in communal rituals of commemoration and engaging in social justice movements promotes social support and posttraumatic growth.”

Mack Harris emphasizes, “Everyone in the collective must do their own work to manage after the trauma. However, the collective must also work together to address the cause and the effects of the trauma. They must be honest about the hard things they experienced instead of stuff the pain and try to act like nothing has happened. The truth always comes out.”

(Video) Dr. James Gordon on how to begin to heal from our collective trauma and stress of the pandemic

Final Thoughts on Collective Trauma

We don’t have to deal with trauma on our own. Thanks to technology, we can create connections with just about anyone in the world if we want to. Creating connections with safe people in our life will help bolster our resiliency and our mental health. Reach out to a trusted friend or therapist today. Your life will reflect the relationships you cultivate. You will feel the difference.

FAQs

How does collective trauma affect health? ›

Decades of research on collective traumas indicates that each of these crises may independently have mental health consequences for exposed individuals, ranging from short-term anxiety to longer-term depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)2.

What is the meaning of collective trauma? ›

Introduction. The term collective trauma refers to the psychological reactions to a traumatic event that affect an entire society; it does not merely reflect an historical fact, the recollection of a terrible event that happened to a group of people.

What is the healing process of trauma? ›

In general recovery is the ability to live in the present without being overwhelmed by the thoughts and feelings of the past. Central to the experience of trauma is helplessness, isolation and the loss of power and control. The guiding principles of trauma recovery are the restoration of safety and empowerment.

What are examples of collective trauma? ›

Well known collective traumas include: the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, slavery in the United States, the Nanjing Massacre, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Trail of Tears, the Great Irish Famine, attack on Pearl Harbor, the MS Estonia in Sweden, the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United ...

What are 5 consequences of trauma? ›

Delayed responses to trauma can include persistent fatigue, sleep disorders, nightmares, fear of recurrence, anxiety focused on flashbacks, depression, and avoidance of emotions, sensations, or activities that are associated with the trauma, even remotely.

What happens when you go through too many traumatic events? ›

Trauma can make you more vulnerable to developing mental health problems. It can also directly cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some people misuse alcohol, drugs, or self-harm to cope with difficult memories and emotions. Depending on how you're affected, trauma may cause difficulties in your daily life.

What are the 7 types of trauma? ›

Trauma Types
  • Bullying. ...
  • Community Violence. ...
  • Complex Trauma. ...
  • Disasters. ...
  • Early Childhood Trauma. ...
  • Intimate Partner Violence. ...
  • Medical Trauma. ...
  • Physical Abuse.

What are the 3 types of trauma? ›

There are three main types of trauma: Acute, Chronic, or Complex. Acute trauma results from a single incident. Chronic trauma is repeated and prolonged such as domestic violence or abuse. Complex trauma is exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events, often of an invasive, interpersonal nature.

How can trauma affect everyday life? ›

Daily emotions

Anger, grief, despair, helplessness, shame, numbness, and loneliness are common emotional reactions to trauma. When these emotions don't improve over time, they often lead to another uncomfortable feeling: a total lack of control.

Can you heal trauma completely? ›

The most important thing to remember is that whether you do it with the support of friends and family or the support of a mental health therapist, it is 100% possible to completely heal from trauma and continue on to live a meaningful life. Your life doesn't need to end with a traumatic event.

Can I heal trauma by myself? ›

Recovering from trauma takes time, and everyone heals at their own pace. But if months have passed and your symptoms aren't letting up, you may need professional help from a trauma expert. Seek help for trauma if you're: Having trouble functioning at home or work.

What are the 4 types of trauma responses? ›

Trauma response is the way we cope with traumatic experiences. We cope with traumatic experiences in many ways, and each one of us selects the way that fits best with our needs. The four types of mechanisms we use to cope with traumatic experiences are fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.

What are the 6 trauma responses? ›

In the most extreme situations, you might have lapses of memory or “lost time.” Schauer & Elbert (2010) refer to the stages of trauma responses as the 6 “F”s: Freeze, Flight, Fight, Fright, Flag, and Faint.

What are the four major symptom groups associated with trauma? ›

PTSD symptoms are generally grouped into four types: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions.

How is trauma stored in the body? ›

Ever since people's responses to overwhelming experiences have been systematically explored, researchers have noted that a trauma is stored in somatic memory and expressed as changes in the biological stress response.

Do effects of trauma last forever? ›

The short answer is “yes.” There are many adverse long-term effects of childhood trauma that stay with people throughout their lives. For some, the consequences are more severe than for others. The best thing you can do is try and process your trauma with help and support from a professional.

What does trauma do to the brain? ›

Often, stimuli can trigger overactivity in the amygdala if somehow connected to the traumatic event a person suffered from. How trauma affects the brain might lead to chronic stress, heightened fear, and increased irritation. This might also make it harder for those suffering to calm down or even sleep.

How do you know you've healed from trauma? ›

"Looking forward to the future and being able to create a renewed sense of self. The traumatic event is no longer the primary event in one's life. Therefore, being able to reconnect with oneself and embrace the future without feeling overwhelmed is also a positive sign in trauma healing," Dr Parul told HT.

How long until trauma goes away? ›

Responses to trauma can last for weeks to months before people start to feel normal again. Most people report feeling better within three months after a traumatic event. If the problems become worse or last longer than one month after the event, the person may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

How does trauma change personality? ›

Individuals with childhood trauma show much more depression, anxiety, distorted cognition, personality deficits, and lower levels of social support, which may represent the social and psychological vulnerability for developing psychiatric disorders after childhood trauma experiences.

What is the most serious trauma level? ›

Level 1 is the highest or most comprehensive care center for trauma, capable of providing total care for every aspect of injury – from prevention through rehabilitation.

What body system is affected by trauma? ›

The physiological effects of trauma. Dr. Celan explains that trauma sensitizes something called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is the body's central stress response system. You can think of this as the intersection of our central nervous system and endocrine system.

What are the three stages of recovery? ›

The recovery process may be conceptualized in three stages: establishing safety, retelling the story of the traumatic event, and reconnecting with others. Treatment of posttraumatic disorders must be appropriate to the survivor's stage of recovery.

How do you take care of someone with trauma? ›

Listen to them
  1. Give them time. Let them talk at their own pace – it's important not to pressure or rush them.
  2. Focus on listening. ...
  3. Accept their feelings. ...
  4. Don't blame them or criticise their reactions. ...
  5. Use the same words they use. ...
  6. Don't dismiss their experiences. ...
  7. Only give advice if you're asked to.

What happens when you don't deal with trauma? ›

Unresolved trauma puts people at increased risk for mental health diagnoses, which run the gamut of anxiety, depression and PTSD. There are physical manifestations as well, such as cardiovascular problems like high blood pressure, stroke or heart attacks.

Where is sadness stored in the body? ›

When we chronically repress emotions, we create toxicity in our body, mind, and heart. This unprocessed emotional energy is stored in our organs, muscles, and tissues. It leads to inflammation and chronic health problems, and it undermines our overall well-being.

Where is guilt stored in the body? ›

Guilt, Fishkin says, is associated with activity in the prefrontal cortex, the logical-thinking part of the brain. Guilt can also trigger activity in the limbic system. (That's why it can feel so anxiety-provoking.)

Where is anger stored in the body? ›

The emotion of anger is associated with the choleric humor and can cause resentment and irritability. It is believed that this emotion is stored in the liver and gall bladder, which contain bile. Anger can cause headaches and hypertension which can in turn affect the stomach and the spleen.

How do you heal deep root trauma? ›

3 steps to help overcome childhood trauma
  1. Recognize the trauma. The adult must acknowledge this certain childhood experience as trauma. ...
  2. Be patient with yourself. Self-criticism and guilt can be very common when it comes to adults who have lived through a traumatic childhood. ...
  3. Reach out for help.
29 Dec 2021

Can you reverse the effects of trauma? ›

New pathways can be created in lots of ways, through therapeutic techniques (like CBT or EMDR), changes to environment and neuro processes such as Neurofeedback. Reversing the effects of trauma may not be something that is fixed quickly, but with time and effort and help from specialists in the field, it can be done.

Does crying heal trauma? ›

It won't rid you of PTSD and your fears, but let your tears flow and you'll maybe feel a little better afterwards. 'Crying for long periods of time releases oxytocin and endogenous opioids, otherwise known as endorphins. These feel-good chemicals can help ease both physical and emotional pain.

What are three effects of intergenerational trauma? ›

Their children may experience difficulties with attachment, disconnection from their extended families and culture and high levels of stress from family and community members who are dealing with the impacts of trauma.

What are the effects of intergenerational trauma? ›

Intergenerational trauma can negatively impact families as a result of: Unresolved emotions and thoughts about a traumatic event. Negative repeated patterns of behavior including beliefs about parenting. Untreated or poorly treated substance abuse or severe mental illness.

How can trauma affect everyday life? ›

Daily emotions

Anger, grief, despair, helplessness, shame, numbness, and loneliness are common emotional reactions to trauma. When these emotions don't improve over time, they often lead to another uncomfortable feeling: a total lack of control.

How is collective trauma different from individual trauma? ›

Collective trauma can be more insidious than individual trauma in that traumatic events build up over time so that we become numb to the life-changing events as a way of coping. As a result, we may lose perspective and empathy for suffering human beings.

How do you fix generational trauma? ›

If you're working through intergenerational trauma, connecting with a mental health professional can have benefit. A trauma-informed therapist can help you begin to heal by: listening to your experiences. sharing insight into trauma responses.

How do I know if I have ancestral trauma? ›

Common symptoms of intergenerational trauma include low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, insomnia, anger, and self-destructive behaviors.

How does generational trauma affect the brain? ›

Scientists have found that mothers who have suffered childhood trauma can pass this memory down to an unborn baby – scans showed altered brain circuitry in young children. The experience of generational trauma is often found in descendants of genocide survivors, or families which suffered from extreme poverty.

How do you break the cycle of generational trauma? ›

STOPPING GENERATIONAL TRAUMA

Building resilience through open and loving communication between generations is one of the best ways to loosen generational trauma's grip. Healing happens when family members speak up and work through any hurt, pain, or abuse from the past.

How many generations does it take to heal trauma? ›

Our Elders have always said, “What we do today will affect the next seven generations.” Repetitive traumas that happened to our ancestors, as many as seven generations before, can be passed down to our children.

How does trauma store in the body? ›

Ever since people's responses to overwhelming experiences have been systematically explored, researchers have noted that a trauma is stored in somatic memory and expressed as changes in the biological stress response.

What body system is affected by trauma? ›

The physiological effects of trauma. Dr. Celan explains that trauma sensitizes something called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is the body's central stress response system. You can think of this as the intersection of our central nervous system and endocrine system.

How does trauma change personality? ›

Individuals with childhood trauma show much more depression, anxiety, distorted cognition, personality deficits, and lower levels of social support, which may represent the social and psychological vulnerability for developing psychiatric disorders after childhood trauma experiences.

What are the four major symptom groups associated with trauma? ›

PTSD symptoms are generally grouped into four types: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions.

What are the 6 trauma responses? ›

In the most extreme situations, you might have lapses of memory or “lost time.” Schauer & Elbert (2010) refer to the stages of trauma responses as the 6 “F”s: Freeze, Flight, Fight, Fright, Flag, and Faint.

What are the 3 trauma responses? ›

The most well-known responses to trauma are the fight, flight, or freeze responses. However, there is a fourth possible response, the so-called fawn response. Flight includes running or fleeing the situation, fight is to become aggressive, and freeze is to literally become incapable of moving or making a choice.

Videos

1. how personal healing is impacted by collective trauma
(Sarah Peyton)
2. What is COLLECTIVE TRAUMA? What does COLLECTIVE TRAUMA mean? COLLECTIVE TRAUMA meaning & explanation
(The Audiopedia)
3. Collective Trauma's Impact on the Individual, Healing it & How Indigenous Tribes Heal: Santosh Kumar
(Somatic Experiencing & Awakening -Nina Goradia SEP)
4. Collective Trauma 101 Segment 1: Definition & General Information
(Wisconsin OCMH)
5. Addressing Collective Trauma, Understanding Collective Trauma
(Institute of Education Sciences)
6. Healing Our Collective Trauma | Thomas Hübl | Wondros Podcast Ep 142
(Wondros)
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