Last year, the Washington Post ran the headline “The pandemic has caused almost two years of collective trauma. Some are at a breaking point”. The term collective trauma may have been unfamiliar to most people — it’s used mostly in academic circles. But it’s being used more and more to describe the anxiety, worry, panic, and fear that so many people are dealing with right now. Whether you realize it or not, there’s a good chance that you’re feeling some of those effects right now.
Today, I’m going to talk about collective trauma — what it is, what is causing it, and what it does. Most importantly, I’m going to give you some tips to help you cope and heal in a world that seems to be spinning out of control.
What Is Collective Trauma?
Are you feeling a little more on edge lately? Do you dread turning on the news? Do you wake up worried, and stay awake at night tossing and turning over the same worries? Do you feel like your life is out of control, and there’s nothing you can do about it?
If so, I have news for you. It’s not you. It’s the world. More specifically, it’s a natural response to the traumatic events that are happening in the world around us. Usually, when we think of “trauma,” we think of things that affect individuals — a car accident, a death in the family, witnessing a crime. But there are bigger events that affect entire communities — an earthquake, for example, or a mass shooting. These are some examples of collective trauma from world history.
- The attack on Pearl Harbor.
- The Holocaust.
- The atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
- The 9/11 attack.
- The pandemic.
How This Trauma Is Different
Generally, traumatic events have a clear beginning and end. When the hurricane is over, the community can come together and start rebuilding, for example. Those endpoints are important. They give people the space to come together, mourn, start healing and move on.
The past few years have been different in many ways. We’ve faced multiple traumatic events, coming so fast that we don’t have time to process them. In fact, a recent survey found that nearly 75% of United States adults feel overwhelmed by the number of crises facing the world right now. Just take a look at some of what’s happened since 2019.
- The pandemic.
- Multiple high-profile mass shootings.
- Wildfires in the West, Midwest, and Southwest.
- Political unrest.
- The war in Ukraine.
This is just a partial list. Any one of these can change your life. Having all of them happening at once all around us can be overwhelming.
How the Media Makes It Worse
Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle and always-on social media, it really does seem to all be happening all around us all at once. It’s not just that we’re always connected, either. It’s the drive to deliver BREAKING NEWS — in all caps, with scary sound effects, and flashing colors.
It’s come to the point where the Breaking News alert is a stress trigger in and of itself. Couples therapist Steven Stosny coined the term “headline stress disorder” after the 2016 election. He explained that “For many people, continual alerts from news sources, blogs, social media, and alternative facts feel like missile explosions in a siege without end.”
Media shows us traumatic images up close and personal. They bombard us with images of war, destruction, and crime. They report every new development as a major new story. And they feed us more of the same to keep us engaged on their platforms. The result can be a sort of second-hand trauma — people feeling traumatized by an incident even if they didn’t experience it personally.
What Collective Trauma Does to You (and Everyone Around You)
The effects of trauma on your physical and mental health are pretty well-known. Some of the symptoms and reactions include these.
- You may feel shock and disbelief.
- You may feel grief and sadness.
- You may feel helpless to make any changes.
- You may feel hopeless.
- You may feel angry and irritable.
- It may be harder to sleep, or you may find that you sleep more than usual.
- It may be hard to shut off thoughts.
- You may feel anxious all the time.
- It may affect your relationships.
- You may develop headaches or digestive problems.
- You may turn to unhealthy behaviors to help you cope.
Now imagine a world where nearly everyone is feeling some of these symptoms. That’s the world we’re living in right now. The effects of collective trauma can affect all of us. When we deal with personal trauma, we may change our own behaviors. When a country is dealing with collective trauma, it can change all of our lives. The changes to national security after 9/11 are an example. To quote a popular internet meme, one guy tried to blow up a plane with a shoe bomb, and now we all take our shoes off at the airport.
That’s not even considering how many people are dealing with personal traumas. They are grieving loved ones, dealing with the aftereffects of a COVID infection. Political distrust has affected relationships and left some people alienated from family and friends. Many are angry, hurt, fearful, and anxious. They’re dealing with economic worries, and despair over the state of the world. They worry about climate change, the threat of nuclear war, the collapse of the government, and economic collapse.
Most of all, there seems to be an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and a feeling that this is our new normal. But there are ways to cope with all of these stresses, and take back your power over your personal conditions.
Tips for Healing and Coping with Collective Trauma
No matter how helpless you feel, there are ways for you to take control of your life and start healing. The most important thing for you to remember is not that you can’t control the world, but that you don’t have to. You only have to control your own behavior to start taking your overall wellness and happiness back into your own hands.
1. Recognize What Is Happening
Like anything else, the first step in learning to cope with collective trauma is to recognize that you are being traumatized. Look back at the list of trauma effects and see if you recognize any of those in yourself. If you do, you may be dealing with the trauma of the last few years. Remember, you’re not alone, and you’re not a snowflake if you’re having trouble coping. A lot of people are.
2. Stop Doomscrolling
It’s easier said than done, I know. For a lot of people, information gives them a sense of power — the “more you know” effect. But, when the news is overwhelmingly bad — and often useless — the effect can be the exact opposite. This article from NBC News gives some helpful tips on breaking free from the breaking news cycle.
- Set a timer to help you limit the amount of time you spend reading the news. Use parental controls if you have to.
- Step away from the Breaking News. In the first few hours after an event, the news is often wrong and can fuel more anxiety. Better to wait and get more accurate information.
- Delete social media apps from your phone if you have to. If you can’t, use Facebook, Twitter, and other tools to control the news you see. Learn about ways to curate your social media feeds.
- Avoid news and social media before bed.
- Add positive media to your playlist. Find a podcast or other news source to start or end your day with good news.
3. Analyze Your Worries
Spend some time figuring out what’s worrying you. It will help you decide which actions you need to take to get control over them.
4. Get the Facts
I wish I could tell you that you can just wave your hands and make all the problems go away, but that’s not realistic. The fact is that the economy does suck, and the world is a bit of a dumpster fire right now. On the other hand, it may not be quite as awful as you think. When you understand the facts behind the big breaking news stories, you’ll be able to make plans to help you cope with them.
5. Get Involved in Collective Action
Communities heal from collective trauma by drawing strength from each other. Instead of spending your time with people who make you feel hopeless, find groups that are taking action and working on healing.
6. Focus on Healthy Habits
Trauma reactions can send you into an unhealthy spiral. Stress and anxiety can make it difficult to take any positive actions for yourself. Unhealthy habits can affect your physical health. Feeling unwell makes it harder to take care of yourself. If you need motivation to get your life back on track, check out these suggestions. And these are some of the healthy habits that will help you cope with stress.
- Take a daily walk.
- Get outside in the sun as often as you can.
- Go to be on time each night.
- Eat healthy meals.
- Establish a daily routine.
- Set up daily, weekly, and long-term goals. Work towards them.
7. Get Your Money Under Control.
If money worries are stressing you out, focus on the changes you can make to increase your income or cut your expenses. Take advantage of the low unemployment rate to ask for a raise. Consider a job change — everyone is hiring right now. Start a savings account — interest rates are rising, which makes it a good time to find an interest-bearing account.
8. Make Time for Self-Care
Adopting healthy habits is one form of self-care, but it’s not the only one. Make it a point to spend time doing things you love with people you love. Make that doctor’s appointment for a checkup. Visit your dentist. Get a fitness coach. Get back on track with your health routines. As you take control over your health and wellness, you’ll feel more in control of your life.
The world may be awful right now, but it doesn’t mean your life has to be. Take breaks from the bad news and build in time to do the things that inspire you and make you happy. Step up to make a difference where you can. And take this time to set yourself up for success and progress in the future. You’ll feel better when you make your own emotional and physical wellness a priority.
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Psychology Today — What Is Collective Trauma?
VeryWell Mind — Effects of Collective Trauma
National Child Traumatic Stress Network — Secondary Traumatic Stress
Kaiser Permanente — Healing from Collective Trauma
HelpGuide — How to Cope with Traumatic Stress
NBC News — Headline Stress Disorder