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Understanding Collective Trauma and How it Impacts Us


As we continue to move through and try to adapt to all the shifts and changes that have come in 2020, it’s become clear that this experience is impacting everyone in one way or another. Through the fear, loss, and pain that has come with moving through COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and the recent election cycle, this year can be looked at as an experience that is triggering collective trauma world-wide. Collective trauma is defined as a traumatic event shared by a collective group of people of any size, sometimes even an entire society. One writer describes a collectively traumatic event as “a cataclysmic event that shatters the basic fabric of society… collective trauma is also a crisis of meaning.” 

It’s normal to feel pained, hurt, tired, and confused as a result of collective trauma. I believe it’s essential to understand how fully and completely collectively traumatic experiences can impact us. In this blog I’ll go over some of the typical symptoms that emerge during times of collective trauma and ways to process and cope with them.

Recognizing our Emotions and Where They’re Coming From

Unpacking quarantine fatigue

Throughout my work as a therapist during this time. I’ve heard so many reports of fatigue, despite being less active and engaging in fewer events and engagements then before the stay-at-home order. A helpful way of understanding why we feel more tired than ever can come from looking at how animals respond to threat. 

Most animals engage in “fight or flight” mode when threatened by a predator or dangerous situation. During this period animals experience heightened activation and adrenaline, which allows them to fight harder, think quicker, and run faster as a means to get to safety; however, if the danger or stressful situation can’t be escaped, the system becomes overloaded and burnt out, which can lead to feeling intensely tired. 

In a continually stressful and painful time, anxiety-provoking experiences can’t necessarily be escaped. It’s normal for the body to respond to the stress with an initial spike of activation and adrenaline, followed by feelings of exhaustion when the stress is ongoing. As we continued to carry on from weeks, to months, and now approaching a year, it is understandable that our defense systems may be feeling burnt out and our bodies are feeling more fatigued.

Making space for loss

This is a period of time that’s marked by so much loss, whether it be loss of life, loss of faith in systems or institutions, loss of financial security, or loss of experiences or plans for the future. While a collectively traumatic experience can create solidarity and community, it can also lead some to diminish or dismiss the pain of their own experience, thinking “others have it much worse than I do,” or “I should just be grateful for…” While we can recognize how we hold privilege and make space for our gratitude, I believe that it’s still essential to acknowledge, process, and grieve what we have lost during this time in order to truly begin to heal from it. 

Although sources of support may not be physically accessible, there are more online support options than ever. If you’re struggling to cope with pain or loss that has been kicked up in the past year, consider reaching out to a therapist for tele-therapy, or contacting the facilitator of an online support group. 

The Practice of Ongoing Self-Compassion

Although some of us may have more unstructured time than in the past, that doesn’t necessarily mean that filling it full of “productive” activities is the answer. If you’re struggling to complete the goals you’re setting yourself throughout the day, rather than falling into patterns of punishing self-talk or criticism, recognize that things that used to come easily to you may feel more labored during stressful times. Try your best to meet that recognition with kindness and understanding directed towards yourself, perhaps as you may towards a friend. 

Don’t be afraid to set your expectations to small daily tasks, and don’t be afraid to celebrate those small victories. 

Samantha Waldman (she/her) is a NYC-based psychotherapist and a Bridges Co-Founder. One of her passions in her work and education has been exploring biracial or multiracial identity, multiethnic identity, transracial adoption, and Asian-diaspora identity. Samantha currently works as a member of the Intuitive Healing Psychotherapy team and was trained at Teachers College, Columbia University.