The topic of trauma has been widely researched for many years. Researchers have found that trauma can be experienced on both an individual and group level (Holman et al., 2020). In rare cases, trauma can even be experienced on a global scale. Collective trauma refers to a traumatic event that affects a group of people. Events may include plane crashes, mass shootings, natural disasters, war, and pandemics (Hirschberger, 2018). Well-known collective traumas include the Holocaust, American slavery, 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Even now, we are currently experiencing the effects of collective trauma.
The psychological impact that trauma can have on mental health is PTSD, depression, anxiety, and other disorder symptoms (Duane et al., 2020). PTSD is a condition that’s characterized by symptoms like nightmares and flashbacks. Individuals with PTSD may have difficulty concentrating and may go to great lengths to avoid anything that reminds them of the traumatic event. Additionally, trauma may alter a person’s ability to cope with stress (Duane et al., 2020). Individuals may struggle with stress, anxiety, or difficulty sleeping, but over time, symptoms can improve. The pandemic has also introduced new worries that have caused many to feel on edge and uncertain about life. Whether they’re worried about their health, their family’s health, financial issues, or not being able to see loved ones, the pandemic created a collective experience that affects most individuals’ mental health in a similar way.
People who have endured traumatic experiences may pass their trauma responses on to the next generation. A recent 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 (Isobel et al., 2021). In communities who’ve experienced trauma, the stories they tell and the behaviors they exhibit may cause younger generations to behave as if they experienced the trauma as well. This is because children easily mirror and learn from an adult’s behavior. In the Bobo doll experiment by Albert Bandura, children were found to learn behaviors such as aggression through observation. If the kids watched an adult beat up the Bobo doll, then they were more likely to copy that behavior (McLeod, 2014). In the context of trauma, if children are constantly exposed to specific beliefs and behaviors from their families, they’re more likely to mirror them and process them as their own. Social learning is a critical concept that has to be taken into account when overcoming trauma.
Technology and media exposure have been associated with acute stress and post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS). Because there is access to media coverage on these events as they occur in real-time, people everywhere can see vivid media images of potentially traumatic events at any time of the day. These types of stories of traumatic events expand the events’ boundaries, transforming local events into widespread collective traumas. Although access to media stories about these events may inform us about events in our world, prolonged exposure to media coverage can heighten public anxiety and fear (Holman et al., 2020).
It’s difficult to treat trauma on such a wide scale, but the consequences of not addressing it can be even more damaging. No progress can be made until the social causes perpetuating it are not addressed. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing collective trauma, and the rehabilitation methods are unique to every situation. What does work, however, are group efforts such as recognition, solidarity, communal therapy, and global cooperation. People who experienced trauma can connect through a shared experience and can find comfort in their resilience. By connecting with others, we can feel less alone.