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We're suffering collective trauma. Here's how we can recover according to a therapist.

Collective trauma has been described as a “cataclysmic event that shatters the basic fabric of society”. The term collective trauma refers to the psychological reactions to a traumatic event that affect an entire society. 

When we look back on the past two years, trauma might not be the first thought that crosses our mind. Yet, we when examine the emotional distress, isolation, fear and anxiety we have all navigated, the trauma experienced during the Black Summer bushfires, the COVID-19 pandemic, and now with the floods and Ukrainian invasion can be likened to that of world wars and terrorist attacks. 

Some people have lost loved ones to the coronavirus and been unable to attend funerals, while others have lost homes, been separated from family members for years, locked out of schools and locked in their homes for months, experienced severe financial stress and ruin, and illness themselves.

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We have all experienced a sense of powerlessness. 

In fact, the pandemic and what's happening around the world right now has been a masterclass in it - we’ve all quickly learned that we’re not in control of our lives. 

Our lives have been in disarray. The constant hurdling over the past two years has been mentally exhausting and overwhelming. 

It’s unsettling for most people, particularly those of us who revel in being the masters of our own destiny. 

New words and phrases have also entered our vocabulary. 

We’ve been told that we’re living in ‘unprecedented times’. But when will these times end, we ask? We’ve been told to ‘pivot’. And finally to ‘stay positive’. Unfortunately, these soundbites, which all are designed to keep us moving forward, can add to our feelings of angst and powerlessness.

When collective trauma isn’t processed and addressed as a society, or is even suppressed, the collective group doesn’t heal.

The effects of unresolved collective trauma can be devastating for the individual, their family and the wider community, leading to ongoing mental health problems.

The individual trauma that we each experience can linger for years, festering under the surface and causing a build up of stress and anxiety. Like many other traumatic historical events, the COVID-19 pandemic and other current world events could also develop into intergenerational trauma, where parents pass down their trauma to their children. 

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For some of us, we might not have individual trauma, but ‘burnout’. 

Although it’s not trauma-related, it has similar symptoms. 

Burnout may leave us feeling exhausted emotionally and physically, and withdrawing from the world. 

Burnout is more of a cumulative, slow burn that slowly sucks out the enthusiasm and positive energy we felt for life. 

It’s okay if you’ve found yourself at the end of your caring capacity. Many of us may feel as if the past 24 months have been one, long public health/personal wellbeing/national trauma.

How we can heal our collective trauma and/or burnout

Acknowledge your feelings

If you’re feeling the impact of collective trauma or pandemic burnout, take your feelings seriously.

Often ‘we need to feel it, to heal it’. The first step is to acknowledge our feelings and thoughts. Reach out to a caring person or seek professional help. 

Life has been harder for many than it has been in our own histories, and it’s okay to feel overwhelmed. 

Take care of yourself

The second step is self care. 

It’s not okay to allow yourself to continue to suffer. 

This is not about being mentally unwell, rather it is about being mentally fit and giving yourself permission to look after yourself. 

Being human is being authentic, and being human means we’re going to hurt. It is time to put your own needs first so that you can care and support your family, friends and colleagues. 

Cut yourself some slack and take the time to breathe. 

Connect with others

The third step is connection. 

This pandemic has caused a huge disconnection. We are relational beings, our survival depends on connection, yet we are socially distanced, wearing masks and unable to hug. 

We’re seeing many clients at that are struggling with a lack of connection.

Remind yourself, that we are in this together. 

Approach people with the same patience and kindness you would like in return, and remember that healing comes from community connection, meaningful work, engaging in spiritual practices and supporting your fellow humans, but not at the expense of your own wellbeing!

Alyssa Lalor is a therapist and program director at South Pacific Private - Australia’s leading treatment centre for trauma, addiction and mental health. She holds a Bachelor or Psychology and a Master in Counselling, and has been working in the private psychiatric hospital sector for more than a decade.

Feature Image: Getty / Mamamia

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