Humanity experiences significant events in cycles; these include natural disasters, terrorist attacks, epidemics and economic crises.
Traumatic events are constant on our planet, there are at least 20 active wars in the world, of which the vast majority of people are unaware. Most countries regularly experience tragic events, including famines, fires, tribal wars and uprisings against certain regimes.
The multiple losses, wounds and suffering caused by these situations often result in collective trauma. When these events end, resolve or disappear, the trauma does not disappear with them. Instead, it remains as a residue that can have a significant impact on society as a whole.
What is collective trauma?
Collective trauma refers to an event that profoundly affects a group of people, families, communities, entire societies. This term is also used to describe the psychological effects of a tragic event on the memory of a group. The events cause significant and persistent emotional distress in those affected, which can span generations.
Large-scale traumatic events affect groups of people, not just individual victims. These events can include natural disasters, wars, famines, mass shootings, plane crashes… Moreover, seeing events on the news can also be a trigger for trauma and all its negative effects.
In addition to reflecting historical facts and the memory of a specific event, the collective trauma is represented in the collective memory of a society. Like other forms of memory, this includes the ongoing reconstruction of the traumatic event to make sense of it.
Collective trauma and mental health
Mental health can be significantly affected by negative experiences. Our body, mind, relationships, spirituality, and social interactions can be significantly altered after experiencing a traumatic event.
There are individual traumas that involve a few people, such as traffic accidents. Traumatic events do not affect victims in the same way. Some people barely feel any changes after experiencing a traumatic event. Others, on the other hand, can be scarred for the rest of their lives after experiencing this type of event.
The degree of response depends on a series of factors such as level of stress, capacity for resilience, previous traumatic events and the quality of meaningful relationships.
There are a series of short-term trauma symptoms. After a traumatic event, it is common to experience anxiety or insomnia. In addition, the ability to handle stress may worsen. Some people feel that their life has no purpose and go down the path of pleasure. Some trauma reactions go away over time, but sometimes they can set in and need therapeutic help.
Many chronic physical and mental health problems are caused by trauma. Some people develop PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, which consists of symptoms such as flashbacks and constant nightmares. People who suffer from PTSD may have difficulty concentrating and may even go out of their way to avoid anything related to the source of their trauma.
As with the individual experience, the impact of collective trauma on emotional well-being can vary from person to person. However, there is a consensus among most people about the negative effects of the event on their mental health.
Many people feel anxiety following a world event. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has made most of us feel anxious, nervous, and sometimes jittery. We were worried about getting sick, about the future, about the vaccine, about not seeing our loved ones… These worries made us experience the event collectively, while having effects on our emotional well-being.
Response to trauma
Negative and positive responses are possible after suffering a traumatic experience. Researchers often examine the effect of traumatic events on people in terms of long-term outcomes. Over time, many people experience mixed results.
At the negative pole, anxiety caused by trauma can spread throughout a society, causing considerable suffering to all involved. For example, after a famine, an entire society may begin to hoard food instead of continuing to produce it. This response is normalized and the suffering from these behaviors may be generalized.
However, some people, while wishing the event had never happened, say they feel the event has brought about a positive change in their lives. They believe that the traumatic experience caused them to develop higher self-esteem and enrich their meaningful relationships.
Studies have shown that shared pain can unite groups both in the lab and in communities that have experienced dramatic events. Sharing traumatic experiences can lead to a sense of togetherness that promotes healing. This is because people can recognize their shared experience and find a common goal.
Collective trauma and memory
Traumatic experiences can be passed down from generation to generation. Families often exhibit this trait; For example, an abusive parent may raise anxious and fearful children.
In the process of collective trauma, traumatic memories also persist beyond the lives of direct victims. they are remembered by group members who are far removed from the events in both time and space.
Different generations of people who experience a traumatic event may have different memories of the event, due to their lack of first-hand exposure. This may lead future generations to construct past events differently from direct survivors of the event.
Volkan calls this phenomenon chosen trauma; it is thought to link trauma, memory and ontological security. Indeed, the selected traumas can be seen as narratives that indicate that “walking on blood” is necessary for group freedom, independence, and security.
Collective trauma leads to the destruction of meaning; hence the need to retrace the process of its construction. Meaning is created and maintained by connecting the self to the environment and to others. It also promotes a sense of self-esteem, belonging, effectiveness and continuity.
Collective trauma and the social construction of meaning
Collective trauma refers to an event that tears apart the basic fabric of society and sometimes results in significant loss of life. In addition, presents a crisis of meaning; it encourages people to redefine who they are and where they are going.
When a group of people experiences trauma, the process turns into collective memory. This then leads to the construction of a system of meaning that allows them to redefine their group identity and their raison d’être. However, in some traumas there are two sides; victims and perpetrators derive meaning from their traumatic experiences in different ways.
For victims of collective trauma, this process heightens their sense of existential threat. This pushes them to search for meaning in their lives, which leads them to create a cross-generational self with common goals and objectives.
For authors, remember Trauma poses a threat to their collective identity, and they can deal with it by denying its occurrence, minimizing their guilt, and transforming memory. They can also close the door to your past, disidentify from the group or accept responsibility for events. This often coincides with the development of new narratives that acknowledge past crimes and emphasize the positive elements of the group in the present.
Although victims and perpetrators go through this process, it is possible to negotiate between or within groups. These are helps to get understanding between them; it also provides a basis for intergroup communication.
- Aydin, C. (2017). How to forget the unforgettable? On Collective Trauma, Cultural Identity, and Mnemotechnologies, Identity, 17:3, 125-137, DOI: 10.1080/15283488.2017.1340160
- Chang K (2017) Living with Vulnerability and Resilience: The Psychological Experience of Collective Trauma. Acta Psychopathol. 3:53 doi:10.4172/2469-6676.100125
- Erikson, K. (1976). Everything in its path. New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks.