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Collective Trauma and COVID-19

  • Why am I so TIRED?
  • I can’t seem to FOCUS.
  • It’s hard to get anything done.
  • I feel SAD and I don’t know why.
  • Little things have been making me so MAD lately.

Sound familiar?  These feelings and realizations are more common than ever, and it’s time we talk about why—and what we can do about them.

It might surprise you to learn that everything listed above is a symptom of trauma. And the reason it seems like everyone is feeling these things is because, well, everyone is. What we’re talking about here is called “collective trauma.”

Collective trauma is a reaction to an event that is experienced by a lot of people at the same time. These events have happened, and their impacts have been tracked by psychologists and psychiatrists, many times in history—and include wars, natural disasters, the Great Depression, 9/11, and by all indications, the COVID-19 pandemic.  See, big hard events like these turn our lives upside-down; they cause stress, fear, anger, confusion, and anxiety. These are, in every sense of the words, TRAUMATIC events.

In this post, we will discuss collective trauma and the impacts Covid-19 has had on our mental health.

What is Trauma?

According to the American Psychological Association,  trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event” like an attack or a natural disaster. The APA goes on to say:

Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives.

It’s important to understand that you don’t have to have been directly impacted by the event for the reactions to occur. You don’t have to have lost people or property for a war to have been a trauma, and you certainly don’t have to have gotten sick (or know anyone who did) for the COVID-19 pandemic to cause a trauma response. Instead, think about the impact that these things can have on your life—they change the way you work, the way you shop for groceries, the things you do for fun, the way you dress, how (and where) you go to school, and the ways you interact with your friends. The disruption that a “terrible event” can cause is MORE than enough to create a trauma response.

Dr. Wendy Oliver-Pyatt explains, people may have a trauma response to a variety of situations, some of which may not appear to be overtly traumatic. People can experience traumatic interpersonal experiences, internalized shaming experiences, long standing negligence, and emotionally invalidating environments, all leading to arousal and trauma reactions.  These already-existing traumas, coupled with the collective trauma we face as COVID has impacted our society, has created a trauma spiral for some people. Where they may have been able to manage before, that may no longer be the case. And as a result, more mental health care is needed.”

people may have a trauma response to a variety of situations, some of which may not appear to be overtly traumatic.

Symptoms of Collective Trauma

So if it’s fair to say that we’re all dealing with a traumatic event (it is), then it just makes sense that we may be feeling the impact of that traumatic stress—and traumatic stress causes symptoms. Verywellmind.com breaks down some of these symptoms:

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.

Sometimes, though, the symptoms don’t improve on their own. Left unexamined and untreated, this traumatic stress can turn into a mental health condition known as “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

The Mayo Clinic describes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as “a condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it.”

Most people who go through traumatic events may have temporary difficulty adjusting and coping, but with time and good self-care, they usually get better. If the symptoms get worse, last for months or even years, and interfere with your day-to-day functioning, you may have PTSD.

The Mayo Clinic breaks down some of the symptoms of PTSD:

  • Intrusive memories of the traumatic event, including nightmares.
  • Avoidance of things that remind you of the event, and avoidance of talking about it.
  • Negative changes in thinking and mood
  • Changes in physical and emotional reactions including:
    •  Being easily startled or frightened
    • Always being on guard for danger
    •  Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast
    • Trouble sleeping
    • Trouble concentrating
    • Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior
    • Overwhelming guilt or shame

The thing is, some of the symptoms of PTSD are the same as those of a less disruptive trauma response; it can be hard to know which you may be experiencing. But, there are things you can do that will help.

Getting Through Collective (and Personal) Traumatic Stress

There are a number of things that can help when we’re dealing with a trauma response. Believe it or not, one of the first things that may bring relief is RECOGNIZING that it’s happening at all! Because collective trauma follows widespread events that we have no control over, the fact that the events are traumatic sometimes gets overlooked. We may feel like we can’t finish the book we are trying to read, but not understand that the concentration problems are caused by traumatic stress. We may understand that we’re irritable, but not see that it’s a part of a collective trauma response. We might be hyper-focused on work, but not even know that we’re avoiding thinking about what’s going on around us. But, now that we know what’s up, it’s easier to be mindful and practice self-care.

When self-care and mindfulness are not enough—and with the size of this pandemic (like wars and other events before it), that is increasingly likely—it’s time to seek professional help. Dr. Amy Boyers explains “At least 1 in 11 people experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in their lifetime. Diagnosis in women is twice as likely as in men.” All the same, Dr. Boyers says, “PTSD is treatable, and a patient is able to live their lives.”

Dr Oliver-Pyatt and Dr. Boyers both emphasize,

“There are various treatment options that are available such as psychotherapy, somatic experiencing, EMDR, group therapies and medication.” 

But most importantly, as the two doctors explain, “the good news is that there is hope for you and a path toward healing.”

Get Collective Traumatic Stress Treatment in Miami, Florida

Thank you for reading our blog on Collective Trauma and Covid-19! 

Galen Hope, a mental health treatment center in Miami, Florida, provides comprehensive services for a wide range of diagnoses and related conditions, including: Eating Disorders, Anxiety Disorders, Borderline Personality Disorder, Dependent Personality Disorder, Mood Disorders, PTSD/Trauma, Psychosis and Thought Disorders, Schizoid Personality Disorder, and Substance Use Disorder. Our treatment integrates the best concepts of residential programs, partial hospitalization programs, and community psychology in order to provide an experience that not only feels uniquely meaningful to the client, but also breaks the cycle of repeated hospitalizations, over-institutionalization, and isolation from community and family.

To learn more, or to join our community, contact us here.

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