There is little doubt that we have only begun to see the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s especially true since the pandemic isn’t even over, nor can we reliably measure where we even are on the arc of the total event. One important point to be clear about is that the “we” in the first sentence of this paragraph is a big “we.” It’s a world-wide we.
It’s interesting to consider the shared experiences that this pandemic has brought about. The financial stress of economic downturns. The frustrations of educational challenges. The value of internet availability. The pain of being cut off from loved ones. The loneliness and isolation of quarantine. The necessity/inconvenience of a face mask. We have all grieved the loss of something, even if it’s the illusion we had of control over our circumstances.
Each one of those struggles, and thousands more, have had a profound effect on our social and emotional health. It’s been a traumatic experience. We’ve known for decades that the emotional effects of trauma are far reaching and not easily overcome. In a unique new way, we are faced with the challenges of understanding and overcoming something that can be understood as collective trauma.
Collective trauma can be identified when the signs of having experienced trauma as an individual are displayed in a larger group. The collective mood, state of mental health and dynamic of our social lives has been deeply affected by our shared experience in the pandemic. It has infiltrated and saturated the fabric of today’s culture. But what does that mean?
One important step in addressing collective trauma is to understand it. Every person displays unique and varied responses to trauma, but we can identify many that are common.
• Emotional numbness.
• Disproportionate anger.
• Everyone drains you, no one energizes you, and you have no patience.
• Increase in cynicism and negative expectations.
• Nothing is satisfying or appealing.
• Difficulty thinking straight and making balanced decisions.
• Reduction in productivity leading to feelings of uselessness.
• Lack of joy from things that you used to enjoy.
• Loss of energy that sleep doesn’t fix.
• You just feel bad physically.
Collective trauma would lead to the same signs and responses, but on a broad societal scale. This means that collectively, or as communities, we are displaying the signs listed above and more. We experience some more than others, and some more intensely than others, but collectively we are not emotionally and socially well. How can we know this?
• Our communities are dealing with issues in violent and destructive ways.
• Media reflects a lack of patience and empathy on a broad scale.
• Domestic abuse is on the rise. Crime is on the rise.
• There is a lack of civility in public discourse.
• We fight instead of problem solve.
• Cynicism is on the rise among our youth.
• Drug and alcohol abuse are increasing.
These are just a few indicators of collective trauma. If we don’t identify and confront the struggle we are facing collectively, we will continue to spin out of control. More damage will result from an unhealthy response to trauma than the pandemic itself could cause. Hurt people will continue to hurt people. If we could acknowledge that as a culture we are displaying and struggling with the effects of collective trauma, how would we counter it?
If we can suffer together, perhaps we can heal together. Consider the possibilities of society as one big support group. Imagine encouraging healthy responses to what we recognize as shared pain, rather than magnifying it. This is why we need social workers and counselors more than ever. We need people who understand how to heal emotionally and socially. We need to employ strategies for overcoming trauma individually, and as communities. So what are some of those strategies?
• Mindfulness and meditation
• Quality time with people you love and who love you.
• Find things that energize and inspire you.
• Develop a strategy for rest that’s more than sleep.
• Focus on your family.
• Show yourself and others grace.
• Rediscover spirituality.
• Seek counseling.
• Turn off sources of anxiety.
• Fight the strange mix of indifference and fury with hopefulness.
• Find someone YOU can help in some way.
The first step to healing is acknowledging the problem. We didn’t cause the collective trauma, but it has happened to us. A society of victims will only ever become overcomers when they realize their power. We can only overcome collective pain through unity. COVID-19 has revealed many weaknesses that were covered by good fortune and health. However, COVID-19 has not robbed us of the power we have always had to love, hope, heal and recover. It’s not enough for me to heal, or you to heal. We have to walk the path of healing together. Let it begin with me and you, and may it spread throughout our communities.
Dr. David Walker is a local school counselor and graduate student in the master’s in social work program at Idaho State University. He lives in Pocatello with his wife and three children.