What is collective trauma, and how can we heal?

Learning about and healing from collective trauma


Much research has been published about how individuals’ trauma impacts communities, but what happens when an entire community is traumatized? This is called collective trauma, which refers to the impact of a traumatic occurrence that affects whole groups of people. Simply put, it is a shared emotional reaction to a terrible event. While such traumas are dealt with collectively, each person within the group affected will be impacted differently.

How do individuals respond to collective 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. Continuous media exposure to the retelling of the story can deplete our empathy and physical, mental, and emotional energy. In many cases, we are watching the events unfold in real-time without the benefit of judicious editing.

Symptoms of collective trauma can include distancing ourselves internally from what is experienced. Sequestering the emotions from the traumatic event can assist in not being swept away by those powerful feelings. Still, it can also lead to the rumination of adverse events. Individual hypervigilance intensifies as we constantly scan the environment for both seen and unseen potential threats to our survival.

Common responses to a traumatic event can also be centered in the body, with a person having headaches, dizziness, rapid heart rate, or nausea. Intense feelings can also leave a person overwhelmed, irritable, shocked, or jumpy. Relationships with loved ones or friends can become strained as you may wish to withdraw and isolate yourself from others while you process what happened. Hearing a particular sound or smelling an odor that was associated with a traumatic event can trigger a very strong physical or emotional reaction. Remember, all these reactions are normal and will vary from person to person based on previous exposure and resiliency.

How do communities respond to collective trauma?

Communities tend to know what to do when tragedy strikes, as seen in the memorials created with flowers, photos, and stuffed animals. Prayer vigils with candles are another example of communities taking the first tentative steps toward moving forward in the wake of traumatic events. Groups gather to talk about the event, and support systems of victims rise like a phoenix from the ashes of renewal. Some countries or communities minimize the potential for a tragedy to reoccur by enacting swift and sweeping legislation in record time that bolsters the social contract—an agreement among members of a society to give up some freedoms to secure the safety and wellbeing of the whole.

What can we do to heal from collective trauma?

Human contact is central to healing. By helping others navigate suffering, individuals can regain a sense of power through meaningful work, being of service to others, or engaging in spiritual practices. Resiliency can be promoted at an individual level, which in turn benefits the group.

Building resilience requires several steps. It is important to take the time to grieve and explore the thoughts and feelings surrounding a traumatic event, rather than sweeping them under a rug, where an accumulation can eventually cause a trip hazard. In time, stuffed, uncomfortable emotions will create additional barriers to healing. If you have been glued to the media, now would be the time to limit your exposure to perpetual coverage.

What can we do to help children heal from collective trauma?

Children need to be kept close to adults after a traumatic event, providing them the freedom to talk about what happened. Make sure you monitor their media exposure. The trauma may have come from being targeted because of someone’s identity; acknowledge that and validate their emotions. Use language that is understandable for the child’s age.

Behavior may regress, a child may become withdrawn, or behavior may change. Be patient. Try taking the child to see a therapist familiar with trauma or seek out supportive people to be allies. Above all, provide structure and routine to give children a feeling of predictability. Collaborate with the child and see what would help them feel safe. Remember, for anyone experiencing a traumatic event, the routine of daily life has been shattered; it will take time to rebuild a sense of safety. Continue to check in. Often, the trauma can continue with no specific end. Understand that expectations may need to be adjusted as the child works through big emotions.

Individuals must try to find the positive in a traumatic event, such as the solidification of community identity or the mutual support given after a natural disaster. Lessons learned from our past can help us navigate significant traumatic events that are an inevitable part of living. Seek out people who are good for you and believe in your power to affect change. Take time for self-care, even in tiny doses throughout the day. And, most importantly, move forward with a sense of gratitude for the big and small things that have graced our lives.

To learn about statistics and misconceptions regarding trauma, visit www.familyforwardmo.org/educate.