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About a year and a half ago, Psychology Today published Danielle Render Turmaud’s post entitled, “What Is Collective Trauma?” She laid out many basics and exemplified her points by discussing some of the societal-level effects of the collective trauma, COVID-19. For reasons of space, I won’t repeat the information and sources she provided, but instead, enthusiastically recommend her post.

The Meaning of “Collective Trauma” and Its Relation to PTSD

There are two meanings embedded in “collective trauma” and they can be understood separately. One refers to traumatic events or traumatic situations occurring in public space, that is, in “the commons,” the commonly perceivable world outside the human psyche. The other refers to the subjective effects of the events or situations on large numbers of people.

Not everyone who has lived through collective traumatic events becomes sufficiently affected to be diagnosed with PTSD. Nonetheless, collective traumas, such as being ethnically cleansed from a homeland or being attacked by weapons of war such as what happened on 9/11, are correctly understood as strongly affecting all survivors of targeted groups, even if in very different degrees and ways. All of them, or almost all, with PTSD.

Categories of Collective Trauma

Collective traumas divide into different categories. Some are single events, like hurricanes. Some occur over years, like one people’s experience of ongoing discrimination by another. Some are caused by humans, like civil or international wars; others are caused by “nature,” like tsunamis; still others result from a combination of human and natural causes, like global warming.

All collective traumas are similar in being extremely disruptive, destructive, and terrifying. All are subjectively overwhelming. What is important to make clear is that collective traumas may be no more than, but also no less than, serious threats of such events. In that case, the threat is the event. The COVID-19 pandemic has a huge impact, whether it is the actual experience of the illness or the traumatizing threat of it. That is, COVID-19 vastly and overwhelmingly continues to sow fear and be disruptive worldwide, although not everyone has become sick with it. The threat is traumatic.

All collective traumas shock the psyches of the members of the relevant group. As with individual trauma, the impact of a traumatic event on many people will differ according to past experience of those people, and, in the case of human-to-human kinds of collective trauma, by the relationship between victim-survivors and perpetrators.

Trauma in Action

Being traumatized means having trauma symptoms. One way to understand trauma symptoms is that they arise out of our initial, involuntary reactions of “fight,” “flight,” or “freeze.” If we “fight,” we react aggressively against the threat. If we choose “flight,” we distance ourselves from the threat. If we “freeze,” we shut down in denial, silence, and dissociation. If we manifest all these responses, we vacillate emotionally on a continuum from righteous anger and alarm to psychic numbness as, for example, we witness the deterioration of the commons’ air, water, soil, and forest.


Collective traumas commonly have an important impact on collectivities’ cultures and functioning. After decades of experiencing all forms of violence, both within single nations, or among them, relations between the peoples involved are poisoned, sometimes seemingly terminally. The effects of collective trauma spread across time intergenerationally and across space by our many modes of interconnectedness.

Many consider the transmission an unconscious or compelled process, one Freud called “repetition compulsion.” To add to the complexity, the power possessed by the parties shapes the situation with all people-to-people trauma. Parties transmit trauma according to the power they possess. Consider the relationship between the large segment of American Whites, who are terrified by the threat of loss of an assumed entitlement to run America, with the far weaker long-traumatized American Blacks. Consider the relationships between the still Holocaust-traumatized but still far stronger (Jewish) Israelis and the far weaker Palestinians. Note another complexity in my sad perspective on that situation: In simply seizing and destroying Palestinian olive groves’ trees and lands, the originally traumatized party (Israeli Holocaust survivors and their descendants) have switched roles from being traumatized to being the traumatizer. The mutually unprocessed traumatic relationships in such long-term situations have disabled the development of evolved thinking capabilities among a sufficient number of the population that otherwise they might apply to the situation.

Collective Trauma’s Presence in the US and Elsewhere

Today in the United States, collective traumatic threats are common and likely to grow more so. When I first began writing this post, I came across the following headlines within just a few days:

“After a devastating wildfire, a California community faced another crisis, PTSD. Is it a Warning for the Rest of Us?”[i]

“We must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be.”[ii]

“Continuous Trauma: The State of Children’s Health in the Palestinian Territory.”[1] Nov 1 2021[iii]

Unsolved and Unresolved Collective Traumas

Each of the events and situations I have given as examples of collective traumas has been addressed by the “best minds,” yet most remain unsolved or unresolved. Too many heads of governments or industries seem to feel entitled to fight against measures to improve these immense problems rather than using their power and money to help make possible a future to benefit all sustainably.

The other, related destabilizing threat is that of the grave uncertainty in the United States about whether our democracy can step up to enable us to mitigate the predicaments in order to use the openings for positive outcomes. Our failure to problem solve or resolve, the entitlement by too many powerful and irresponsible individuals to continue to destroy less powerful people’s rights and hopes, on the one hand, and the environment on the other, and the ongoing threats to democracy, are other kinds of overwhelming realities that foster mistrust if not hopelessness about positive change.

Positive Hopeful Initiatives and Psychotherapy’s Role

If the collective context within which we all live has long turned up the traumatic threats and events named here and if things are coming to a head on many of these fronts, they would account for generating a greater sense of threat going forward. What is very hopeful are the thousands of small-scale initiatives on all the issues and some determined efforts at national and international levels.

Hope and possibility exist and inspire, but should not provide a route for the avoidance of tough realities. Our immense and new task as psychotherapists must be to educate as we both hold the hope and hold back that tempting route. We can facilitate our clients’ finding and exploring connections between their and others’ anxieties and the threats and in making more conscious, responsible choices. No one of us can begin to do it all. Yet each of those personal contexts has space for each of us to choose our piece of it, as clinical practice opens out its special role in helping people to cope, accept, grieve, adapt, evolve, and work for new ways to thrive.

This content was originally published here.

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