How can we cope with collective trauma?

It’s no secret that our lives are challenging. Experts claim that we’re all traumatized, but there’s something we can do.

Sad teen (illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Sad teen (illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, we were confined to our homes, which caused harm to our livelihood and stability. 

Endless elections cause many to lose faith in the system. Prices continue to rise while the value of investments and savings erode, and all these are overshadowed by the Israeli security situation which is never certain when it comes to what exactly tomorrow will bring, let alone next week or next year.

It's time to admit that life at this time in human history is a challenging task and for those who think that it’s some consolation that so many are suffering and in the same boat, read on for the opinion of experts on this subject.

"Many people are reporting that they have just reached their limit. They can’t listen to the news anymore."

Roxane Cohen-Silver, University of California, Irvine

University of California, Irvine, psychologist Roxane Cohen Silver has devoted decades to studying how trauma collectively affects people. In an interview with HuffPost, she naturally referred to the American public, but her conclusions can certainly be applied to us.

 Sad man holding pillow (illustrative) (credit: FLICKR) Sad man holding pillow (illustrative) (credit: FLICKR)

Coping with collective trauma

According to her, many people today suffer from what is known as "collective trauma" and in an article she published with her colleagues in the scientific journal Nature Human Behavior, she warns that the last two years have added another new layer to this complex struggle. 

She calls the events of these years "chronic challenges with an ambiguous endpoint" in that no one really knows how bad the situation will really get or when we can finally start to repair and heal.

And if that's not enough, psychologist Esther Boykin explains that these traumas affect us even more than we imagine. She compares this struggle to a cold which is immediately followed by the flu and later a serious infection. 

“The impact feels greater each time because we have lower and lower capacity to deal, because we haven’t had enough time to recover from the last thing. People have reached their limit," she says.

Throughout her career, Cohen-Silver has studied, among other things, how Americans reacted to dramatic, historical events such as September 11, Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon shooting. She discovered that after these events many people developed symptoms that clearly indicated emotional distress such as hypervigilance, sleep problems, difficulties in emotional regulation and a general feeling of always being "on edge.”

Now, she warns, tragic events are unfolding all over the world on a daily basis and she’s concerned about how we’re affected by and will process these events. 

We are really being rapidly bombarded with these kinds of challenges. We may see something different now. I don’t know,” she said. “I do know that emotional exhaustion is a response that we are seeing in our data, that I’m hearing anecdotally that many people are reporting that they have just reached their limit. They can’t listen to the news anymore.”

How can we deal with difficult realities?

So what can be done to improve the situation and deal with our depressing reality in a more intelligent way? To improve in any way you should always start with awareness of the problem and how it really affects you. Compassion can help a lot, even when it’s directed to other people around us but most of all when we give it to ourselves.

In this context, Cohen-Silver suggests to all of us and especially to those who manage others to be much more flexible these days and understand that people can’t always give their maximum, especially at this time. Traumas, she emphasizes, tend to erupt during work due to the pressured environment in most workplaces.

"There may be a number of challenges in the background that we may not see, because people may not share their individual challenges with their co-workers, but the emotional consequences of the individual challenges may still be there."

One effective way to overcome trauma is to create a larger space for rest. We emphasize that rest isn’t always a pampering afternoon nap or an exotic vacation. Rest can also be expressed in small choices made daily such as turning off phone notifications, disconnecting from the news, devoting time to meditation or physical activity and doing hobbies that make us feel good.

This may seem like clichéd advice, but helping others will also help you a lot and a long line of studies support this. When you help people around you with errands or work, take an interest in them or simply smile for no reason when you see them this gives a positive vibe and helps paint our gray reality in slightly brighter shades.