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Collective trauma: what it is, what causes it, and how it affects us

Humanity experiences significant events in cycles; These include natural disasters, terrorist attacks, epidemics, and economic crises.

Traumatic events are constant on our planet, there is talk of at least 20 active wars in the world, of which the vast majority of people are not aware. Most countries regularly experience tragic events, including famines, fires, tribal wars, and uprisings against certain regimes.

The multiple losses, injuries and suffering caused by these situations often result in a collective trauma. When these events are over, either resolving or disappearing, the trauma does not go away with them. Instead, it remains as a residue that can significantly impact the whole of society.

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What is a collective trauma?

A collective trauma refers to an event that deeply affects a group of people, from families, communities, to 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 may span generations.

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Large-scale traumatic events affect groups of people, not just individual victims. These events may include natural disasters, wars, famines, mass shootings, accidents air… In addition, seeing events on the news can also be a trigger for trauma and all its effects negatives.

What is collective trauma

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 continual reconstruction of the traumatic event to make sense of it.

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Collective trauma and mental health

Mental health can be greatly affected by negative experiences. Our body, mind, relationships, spirituality, and social interactions can be significantly altered after experiencing a traumatic event.

There are traumas of an individual nature, which involve few people, such as traffic accidents. Traumatic events do not affect victims in the same way. Some people experience little change after going through a traumatic event. Others, on the other hand, may be marked for the rest of their lives after experiencing this type of event.

The degree of the response depends on a number of factors such as stress level, resilience, previous traumatic events, and the quality of significant relationships.

There are a number of symptoms of short-term trauma. 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 embark on a path towards pleasure. Some responses to trauma disappear over time, but can sometimes set in and need therapeutic help.

Many chronic physical and mental health conditions are caused by trauma. Some people develop PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, which consists of symptoms like constant flashbacks and nightmares. People with PTSD may have difficulty concentrating and may even go to great lengths to avoid anything related to the source of their trauma.

As in 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 experience anxiety as a result of a global event. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic made most of us feel insecure, nervous, and sometimes on edge. We were worried about getting sick, the future, the vaccine, not seeing our loved ones... These concerns caused us to experience the event collectively, as well as having an effect on our emotional well-being.

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response to trauma

Both negative and positive responses are possible after a traumatic experience. Researchers often examine the effect of traumatic events on people in terms of long-term outcome. 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 due to these behaviors can be generalized.

However, some people, despite wishing the event had never happened, say they feel the event brought about a positive change in their life. They believe that the traumatic experience led them to develop better self-esteem and to enrich their meaningful relationships.

Studies have shown that shared grief can unite groups both in the laboratory and in communities that have experienced dramatic events. Sharing traumatic experiences can lead to a sense of cohesion that promotes healing. This is because people can acknowledge their shared experience and find a common purpose.

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Collective trauma and memory

Traumatic experiences can be inherited from one generation to the next. Families often exhibit this trait; for example, an abused parent may raise anxious and fearful children.

In the process of collective trauma, traumatic memories also persist beyond the lives of the direct victims and are remembered by members of the group who are far removed from the events in both time and place.

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 later generations to construct past events differently than the direct survivors of the event.

Volkan calls this phenomenon a chosen trauma; it is believed to connect trauma, memory, and ontological security. This is because the chosen traumas can be seen as narratives indicating that “walking on blood” is necessary for the group's freedom, independence, and security.

Collective trauma results in the destruction of meaning; this gives rise to the need to trace the process of its construction. Meaning is created and maintained by connecting the self with the environment and with other people. It also promotes a sense of self-esteem, belonging, efficacy, and continuity.

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Collective trauma and social construction of meaning

Collective trauma refers to an event that tears at the basic fabric of society and sometimes causes significant loss of life. Also, presents a crisis of meaning; it prompts people to redefine who they are and where they are going.

When a group of people experiences trauma, the process becomes collective memory. This then culminates in the construction of a meaning system that allows them to redefine their group identity and purpose. Nevertheless, 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 drives them to search for meaning in their lives, which leads them to create a transgenerational self with shared purposes and goals.

For the perpetrators, remembering the trauma represents a threat to their collective identity, and they may deal with this by denying its occurrence, minimizing their guilt, and transforming the memory. They can also close the door to your past, disidentify from the group or accept responsibility for the events. This frequently coincides with the development of new narratives that acknowledge past crimes and accentuate the positive elements of the group in the present.

Although both victims and perpetrators go through this process, it can be negotiated between or within groups. This helps them gain understanding with each other; it also provides a basis for intergroup communication.

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