Why We Can’t Go Back: The Lasting Effects of Collective Trauma

Humantold December 7, 2020

2020 has been a difficult year for us all. We've experienced a shift in our collective realities and an increase, at different points, in stress and anxiety. Here's how we can begin to understand and address the collective trauma of 2020.

Perhaps without having heard it before, it's likely that you are intuitively aware of what "collective trauma" means. It's one of those terms that is easily understood through the literal translation of each word involved. 

Collective: denoting a number of persons or things considered as one group or whole

Trauma: a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury

Unfortunately, trauma is a common ingredient in the human experience. It is rare (perhaps impossible) for a person to go through life without encountering a trauma of some kind—whether that be a car accident, an abusive relationship, or the death of a loved one. Collective trauma, however, is a more rare occurrence.  

Collective trauma occurs around a significant event that is experienced by a group of people. Social and political psychologist Gilad Hirschberger defines collective trauma as "a cataclysmic event that shatters the basic fabric of society."

While it is a more rare occurrence, in some ways the repercussions can be even more ubiquitous and unknown as the events take on different meanings from generation to generation. Hirschberger explains, "Collective memory of trauma is different from individual memory because collective memory persists beyond the lives of the direct survivors of the events, and is remembered by group members that may be far removed from the traumatic events in time and space. These subsequent generations of trauma survivors, that never witnessed the actual events, may remember the events differently than the direct survivors, and then the construction of these past events may take different shape and form from generation to generation. Such collective memory of a calamity suffered in the past by a group’s ancestors may give rise to a chosen trauma dynamic that weaves the connection between trauma, memory and ontological security.”

Historical examples of collective trauma include events like the Holocaust, slavery in the United States, the Trail of Tears, and 9/11. The collective stress caused by major events like these impacts individuals, communities, societies, and future generations in unique ways. They can shape government policies, leadership values, cultural rituals, and family narratives. And, as Hirschberger notes, it can cause "a crisis of meaning."

The year 2020 seems to be in itself a collective trauma. While the global pandemic has been a very impactful event, there have been many events that have affected people worldwide. When combined over a short period of 12 months, this year can feel like a lot.

Here is a short list of major events that have happened this year: 

  1. Hong Kong protests
  2. Australian bush fires 
  3. Taal Volcano eruption
  4. The tragic death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant
  5. The Donald Trump impeachment trial
  6. The Covid-19 global pandemic, which caused…
  1. Nationwide quarantines
  2. Global economic hardship
  3. Over 200,000 deaths in the US alone

Again, this is a small list. For brevity's sake, we left out a lot of other events. It's no wonder so many people wish to erase 2020 from their memory. 

Even if we could successfully suppress 2020, the effects of the collective trauma would still be present for some of us. This is because trauma affects each of us in different ways. 

Witnessing Versus Experiencing 

Trauma of any kind is impactful, but the reality of collective trauma on this scale is undeniable. For some, trauma can work in very quiet and subtle ways. And for others, it can present itself in more distressing ways. Who we are as people (culturally, historically, familially, and personally) will influence how we process this year's events. 

Thanks to social platforms and media, few have been spared exposure to the collective traumas of 2020. Horrific events like the murder of George Floyd were witnessed online by people around the world. Thousands died from COVID-19, while many watched death rates rise on TV screens in their living rooms. 

But even in our witnessing, the effects of trauma vary. Becoming ill or losing a loved one from a deadly viral disease is a different experience than not. Experiencing police brutality first hand and seeing it play out on a screen are two very different experiences. Further, watching this kind of violence on a screen has a different effect on a black person than a white person. 

Healing and Moving Forward

Hirschberger explains that collective trauma "transforms into a collective memory, and culminates in a system of meaning that allows groups to redefine who they are and where they are going." We cannot go backward. We cannot undo. So how do we move forward? 

When a society or group of people experience a traumatic event, individual responses vary but can include increased anxiety and depression, and symptoms of PTSD. We have already witnessed the effects of trauma on a large scale through an increased sense of fear, vulnerability, rage, and despair. However, some of these events present opportunities for communities to build intimacy and create positive change together. 

In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel A. van der Kolk mentions several fundamental human truths that help heal trauma. He explains that human connection is one of the greatest tools for healing, "Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being." He goes on, "language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know, and finding a common sense of meaning."

Connecting with people in your community, sharing your experiences, and practicing solidarity can help promote collective healing. One study showed that when people band together after a negative event, it reduces the impact of the trauma. 

Tending to your own mental and emotional health is another way to help manage traumatic stress. In some situations of collective trauma, an individual's anxiety can spread quickly to their family members and community. However, the opposite can occur as well. If we as individuals process and acknowledge the grief and stress that we are experiencing, we can manage our own reactions and set an example for others to do the same. This is not always easy to do; however, connecting with a professional therapist can help

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the size of the issues that surfaced in 2020. If we are conscious of the impacts of collective trauma, we can help reduce its effects on ourselves and future generations.

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