Vita Health

COVID-19 & Collective Trauma

We survived a pandemic. And it's having a lasting impact.

Learn the definition of collective trauma through the lens of COVID-19 and discover how you can address it — in your homes and workplaces. 

COVID-19 & Collective Trauma

Author: Lauren Petrocelli, LCSW

Lauren is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and is certified in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She has more than 10 years of experience working as a mental health therapist.

For many of us, March brings back uncomfortable memories. About four years ago, we started hearing about a terrifying pandemic. We started sanitizing our groceries and staying six feet away from loved ones.

And the hard truth is that fear and uncertainty drove all these practices.

Fear of losing loved ones. Fear of becoming ill ourselves. And fear that life would never be the same. 

Experts in the field of trauma and PTSD have identified the COVID-19 pandemic as a collective trauma. Collective trauma offers us a unique opportunity to come together, build community and support each other. 

I’d like to share with you how mental health experts define collective trauma, how it can impact us, and how we can process it in our various communities — from our schools and homes to our workplaces. 

Defining Collective Trauma 

Trauma is defined as a psychological response to a situation or event, causing feelings of helplessness, fear, or intense distress that overwhelms our ability to cope. 

Collective trauma is unique in that the situation or event impacts a large number of people. Though individual responses might be different, collective trauma impacts a group going through the same trauma, at the same time. 

The COVID-19 pandemic was a worldwide phenomenon, impacting people all around the globe. But collective trauma doesn’t have to be so widespread. You can experience collective trauma in response to a natural disaster, act of violence, or many other types of events. 

In fact, experts agree that even people who witness an event indirectly through media coverage can experience collective trauma. Think about how mass shootings have impacted so many Americans — even if we weren’t victims ourselves. 

Collective trauma is truly anything that we’re surviving together. 

The Impact of Collective Trauma

At the beginning of this article, I talked about how collective trauma offers opportunities to come together. And that’s true. But it also can compound the hurt. 

People experiencing collective trauma are impacted just like any other trauma. Effects of trauma include increased risk of suicide, emotional and physical distress, anxiety, depression, PTSD, isolation, substances abuse, and even physical health problems, like high blood pressure or obesity. 

But with collective trauma, we can also experience changed group attitudes and the development of new, harmful beliefs that can be handed down from one generation to the next. 

And, too often, people experiencing collective trauma may ignore their symptoms — especially when they weren’t at the epicenter of the impactful event or situation.

Take the COVID-19 pandemic for example. Those who didn’t lose a loved one to the disease might minimize their symptoms – feeling like they aren’t justified. 

It’s important to note that our young people are disproportionately impacted by collective trauma. Not only are their brains more vulnerable to the side effects, but they are more likely to be impacted by those shifting attitudes and behaviors — because they’re just starting to understand the world around them. 

Embracing the Opportunity 

Every community — from schools and families to workplaces — can support each other through collective trauma. And anniversaries, like the one we’re facing here in March, offer us a unique opportunity. 

I recommend taking three key steps: Communicate, Remember, Emerge.

First, it’s important to open the lines of communication. This is usually the responsibility of a group leader. For families, this can be parents or guardians. For organizations, this can be executive leadership.

When you Communicate about collective trauma, you start by naming it. This can be very powerful. Let’s use the COVID-19 anniversary as an example. 

A leader might open the lines of communication by saying, “As we’re entering the month of March, I know many of you might be reflecting on how our lives have changed since the COVID-19 pandemic. It really impacted all of us in so many ways.” 

Next, you can take time to Remember — as a group — how the situation or event impacted you. If we circle back to the pandemic anniversary, here are a few ways you can remember as a group: 

- School leaders could make a COVID-19 bulletin board and ask students to contribute ways their lives have changed since the pandemic.
- Organizational leaders could ask team members to share and reflect on their experiences in a meeting. 
- Families could use dinnertime to remember the challenges they faced together. 

The Emerge step can vary, depending on the type of trauma you’ve experienced together. In general, emerging is about taking the next step. 

For some, emerging can be committing to certain new behaviors — as a way to honor or address the collective experience. For example, a group experiencing collective trauma as a result of gun violence might start engaging in activism. 

Or a school who dealt with a significant bullying issue might start a kindness campaign. 

Or, if you lost someone you love, your group might commit to an annual celebration of life — which allows you to go through the communicate, remember, and emerge cycle on a yearly basis. 

The Importance of Getting Help

I couldn’t conclude this without talking about how important it is to validate collective trauma experiences and to get help when you need it. It’s NEVER silly to feel weighed down or adversely impacted by a traumatic event.

You can’t just “get over it.” 

Mental health therapists are trained to give people experiencing collective trauma and post-traumatic stress tools and skills to cope. You can benefit from individual or even group therapy to talk about your experience and to understand how it continues to impact you. 

It’s never too late to get started.

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