How Collective Trauma Impacts Your Health

Collective trauma refers to a traumatic event that is shared by a group of people. It may involve a small group, like a family or it may involve an entire society.

Traumatic events that affect groups may include things like a plane crash, natural disaster, mass shootings, famines, war, or pandemic. Well-known collective traumas include American slavery, the Holocaust, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Attack on Pearl Harbor, and the September 11 terrorist attacks. We are currently experiencing an ongoing collective trauma through the COVID-19 pandemic.

People don’t necessarily need to have experienced the event first-hand in order to be changed by it. Watching the events unfold on the news can be traumatic, for example.

Traumatic experiences may cause a massive shift in the way people in a culture behave, feel, work together, and raise their children.

How Trauma Can Impact Mental Health

Some traumatic experiences are individual. A near-death accident, for example, may only impact one person. Traumatic experiences can lead to a variety of physiological, psychological, relational, spiritual, and societal responses.

Some people emerge from a traumatic experience relatively unscathed. Other people may become forever changed by a traumatic event. The exact degree of differential responses to traumatic experiences depends on a variety of factors, including prior trauma history, current stressors, level of resilience, and the degree to which there are meaningful relationships.

A traumatic situation may alter a person’s capacity to cope with stress. Individuals may feel as though their lives have lost meaning and they may struggle to experience pleasure. Sometimes, trauma responses fade over time. Individuals may struggle with stress, anxiety, or difficulty sleeping for a couple of days or weeks, but over time, symptoms may improve.

Conditions Resulting From Trauma

Trauma is associated with development of many conditions. Some individuals develop PTSD—a mental health condition that is characterized by symptoms like nightmares and flashbacks. Additionally, many people may deal with anxiety following a traumatic event.

PTSD

Individuals with PTSD may have difficulty concentrating and they may go to great lengths to avoid anything that reminds them of the traumatic event.

Other traumatic experiences are shared by entire groups. Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, has been a collective trauma. And while the impact it has on mental health can vary greatly from individual to individual, there’s a shared agreement among most people that the experience has affected their psychological well-being in one way or another. We will learn the extent to which the effects have had on us collectively as well as individually in the future.

Anxiety

Anxiety starts as a normal response to danger cues but becomes pathological when it continues to affect us without the direct cue. Many people have experienced anxiety as a result of a traumatic experience. For example, the current pandemic has caused many to people feel on edge and uncertain about life. Whether they’re worried about getting sick, not being able to visit loved ones, children being out of school, or their financial futures, the pandemic has created a collective experience that affects most people’s mental health in a similar way.

Together, communities have had to figure out how to deal with uncertainty—as there haven’t been clear dates about when society will re-open or when a vaccine may become available.

Positive Responses to Trauma

Traumatic events can also be opportunities for tremendous growth. In fact, researchers call this post-traumatic growth.

Greater Self-Esteem

Following a traumatic experience, some individuals report greater self-esteem and more positive relationships. They may say that while they wish the traumatic event didn’t happen, they feel as though they are in a better place.

Sometimes, entire groups or societies may be affected in a way that helps them create positive change. They may feel supported by one another. They may come together on a common goal. And they may even report less psychological pain when it’s a shared experience.

When groups or societies go through traumatic experiences, they can develop positive resilience strategies and ways to cope, including humming, singing, and dancing.

Both Positive and Negative Outcomes Are Possible

Much of the research often focuses on people either having a positive or negative outcome after a traumatic event. But some people experience both. They may have some symptoms of PTSD while at the same time experiencing some positive outcomes as a result of a traumatic event.

Solidarity Promotes Healing

Sometimes, shared pain leads to solidarity that promotes healing because, individuals may defend against a common experience and find meaning in their experience together.

Some studies have found that shared pain can actually help some groups band together. This has been found in both laboratory experiments as well as studies conducted on communities who have endured a traumatic event.

In one lab study, for example, one group of participants were asked to complete tasks that induced pain, like submerging their hands in ice-cold water or performing upright wall squats. The other group was given tasks that did not induce pain, like submerging their hands in room temperature water and balancing on one leg for 60 seconds.

Participants in the pain group reported feeling more bonded to one another as compared to the group who didn’t experience pain. Follow-up studies indicated that the experiences of pain also increased cooperation among group members.

This same phenomenon was demonstrated in 2010 when Chile experienced an earthquake that affected more than 22,000 homes. Researchers found that the people who worked together to get water, food, firewood, shelter, and emotional support showed a reduced impact of the trauma.

Working together to help one another increased altruism, social support, cohesion, and positive social beliefs and values.

Negative Responses to Collective Trauma

Entire communities may experience the same types of symptoms. And when an entire society is traumatized, healing becomes more difficult.

It’s tough to find treatment providers who haven’t been traumatized as well. And when you’re surrounded by friends and family who are struggling with symptoms, you might be more likely to take on those symptoms yourself. This experience is very common and referred to as vicarious trauma.

Pain may be widespread and unhelpful responses may become normalized. An entire society may begin to hoard food after a famine, for example, even when food is plentiful again. Anxiety may be contagious as everyone begins to live in a state of chronic stress. Individuals may suffer and entire communities may struggle to move forward.

Intergenerational Trauma

People who have endured traumatic experiences may pass their trauma responses on to the next generation. This can be seen in families. A parent who experienced significant abuse as a child may raise children who are fearful and anxious, for example.

However, intergenerational trauma can also be seen in societies as a whole. People who survive genocide, for example, may go on to raise children who exhibit symptoms of being traumatized even though they weren’t actually present for the traumatic event.

A study found that intergenerational trauma was occurring in Ukraine. Individuals who survived Holodomor, the mass starvation of millions of Soviet Ukrainians from 1932 to 1933, seemed to pass their trauma onto their children and grandchildren.

A 2020 study found that issues such as risky health behaviors, anxiety and shame, food hoarding, overeating, authoritarian parenting styles, high emotional neediness, and low community trust were passed on from one generation to the next. The younger generations seemed to be in “survival mode” even though they were safe.

Communities who survive traumatic experiences, ranging from mass shootings to natural disasters, may pass on their traumatic responses to the younger generations. The stories they tell and the behaviors they exhibit may cause younger generations to behave as if they experienced the trauma as well.

Some research indicates that the trauma responses that can be passed down from one generation to the next aren’t just psychological or behavioral. There may be biological consequences from trauma as well.

A study that examined the lifespans of civil war POWs (prisoners of war) found that soldiers who were kept in harsher conditions had sons who died at younger ages.

Researchers found that the sons of ex-POWs imprisoned when camp conditions were at their worst were 1.1 times more likely to die by the age of 45 than sons of non-POWs and 1.09 times more likely to die than the sons of ex-POWS when camp conditions were better.

Paternal ex-POW status did not have any impact on the lifespans of daughters. The authors of the study suspect that the father’s biology was impacted and trauma had a genetic effect on their sons.

In addition to these studies, intergenerational trauma often occurs routinely in our society due to poverty, incarceration, community violence, and abuse that goes on in families.

Societal Changes to Collective Trauma

Sometimes, the impact of collective trauma has long-lasting effects on the way a society operates. Take, for example, the attacks on 9/11.

One major change that occurred following the attacks was the way TSA screens passengers. Rules about what you can carry on board a flight changed. And screening procedures also changed.

Those protective measures remain in place today as a result of that event. It was a societal shift that stemmed from collective trauma.

Media Coverage

The way the media covers a major incident may have a considerable impact on how individuals and communities respond to traumatic events.

Boston Marathon Bombings

One example of how the media may impact the traumatic response was the Boston Marathon Bombings' reactions.

In one study, individuals in the U.S. were given a survey two to four weeks after the bombings. Then, they were surveyed again six months later.

Their answers measured their acute stress symptoms. They also reported how much time they spent watching media coverage about the bombings. They reported whether the images were graphic (bloody) or nongraphic (chaotic, non-bloody).

Six months later, they reported post-traumatic stress symptoms, rated their fear of terrorism, and reported how often their physical and emotional health interfered with social and work-related functioning in the prior week.

Individuals who reported greater exposure to graphic images reported more acute stress symptoms in the weeks following the bombings. They also reported increased post-traumatic stress symptoms, greater fear of future terrorism, and functional impairment six months later.

Researchers concluded that both the amount of exposure to media, as well as the graphic content of the exposure, were linked to the increased symptoms individuals were experiencing.

Consuming News About a Traumatic Event

Media portrayals very much contribute to trauma that happens in society. So it’s important to be aware of the news you’re consuming during a traumatic event. Watching horrific images of death, destruction, and despair over and over again can traumatize you, even if you aren’t in any physical danger.

The internet has made it easy to consume media around the clock. And it may be tempting to scroll through news constantly to feel as though you’re staying up to date on the latest events. But it’s possible to stay up to date without immersing yourself in the content all the time.

Social Media

Social media also plays a role in the collective response to a traumatic event. At any given moment, you can turn to social media to see how other people are responding to a natural disaster or act of terrorism. With social media, the images / stories can be in your face as they are frequently shared.

Negative Toll on Mental Health

It’s possible that staying glued to social media during a major traumatic event may be harmful to your mental health. Listening to people argue about the best way to respond to a horrific event, for example, may increase your feelings of despair.

Or watching the same graphic images over and over again can take a toll on your well-being. It's often helpful to detox from social media to give your brain a bit of a break.

Social Media Can Be Positive

There are times when social media responses can be helpful. Talking to other people who can relate to your experiences and who share your pain may help you heal. People can become a part of support networks, learn about and participate in process groups, and learn about webinars and panel programs in which others are observed processing.

Following the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, researchers examined the conversations on Twitter. They collected tweets with specific hashtags and used them to identify over 62,000 accounts. Then, they analyzed the content of these users’ tweets from April 2015 to June 2016 to identify different word usage before and after the attacks.

They measured the frequency of positive-affect and negative-affect terms, expressions of shared values, expressions of sadness, anxiety, and anger, and terms related to prosocial behavior.

Overall, they found that the increase in negative-affect terms and expressions of anxiety and sadness lasted for more than one week.

The use of terms related to prosocial behavior and shared values increased the day after the attacks and remained high in the months after the attacks.

This pattern supported the idea that after a disaster, members of the concerned community talk a lot about their experiences. This can lead to a collective emotion that may foster prosocial behavior, including solidarity.

A Word From Verywell

After a traumatic event, it’s important to consider how you’re responding as well as how your community is responding to the event. When you look at a traumatic event as a way to band together for the common good, you might find that you’re able to heal faster from the experience. And, you just might find that you are able to move forward stronger and better than before.

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