Collective trauma: Its impact and how we heal

In psychology, a term called “collective trauma” refers to the effect felt by many people in the aftermath of a tragedy. The pain of collective trauma — sustained after events such as President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Sept. 11, the shootings in Newtown, Conn., and the bombings and manhunt in Boston this week — can influence cultural norms and drive mass action. A society is affected, and a society heals together.

Communities begin to heal when the people within them develop secure connections with family, friends and loved ones and address the loss and trauma symptoms. Healing is aided by the normalization of trauma reactions — basically, understanding that fear, sadness, anxiety and anger are normal responses to abnormal situations. No one responds in the same way to a traumatic event, and reactions can be complex.

With Friday’s violent manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers ending a week of one tragedy after another, many people may experience some level of emotional shock.

They don’t have to experience an act of terrorism directly to have a heightened response. In a study reported in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders in 2007, researchers examined the effect on children and their mothers of television coverage of the Sept. 11 bombing at the World Trade Center in New York City. Though the study subjects were not present at the disaster, 5.4 percent of the children and 1.2 percent of the mothers had post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms from seeing it on TV.

I have been learning about the effects of horrifying, overwhelming experiences as I take a 40-hour course to become an advocate with Rape Response Services in Bangor. Experts used to think PTSD affected only soldiers, and, while traumatic disorders are common among people who experience combat, it was largely the women’s movement in the 1970s that established the category of post-traumatic stress disorders in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1980. From the movement emerged greater awareness of the effects of rape, domestic violence and child abuse.

According to the PTSD Alliance, the estimated risk for developing PTSD after different types of trauma is: rape, 49 percent; severe physical assault, 32 percent; sexual assault other than rape, 24 percent; serious accident or injury, 17 percent; shooting or stabbing, 15 percent; sudden unexpected death of a family member or friend, 14 percent; a child’s life-threatening illness, 10 percent; witnessing a killing or serious injury, 7 percent; and natural disaster, 4 percent. Acts of terrorism are rare in the United States but cut deep and put thousands of people at risk for PTSD.

Reactions to trauma are normal, healthy and help people survive. With a typical stress response, people might have difficulty concentrating; they might feel guilty, shocked, helpless, anxious, fearful or irritable and have an increased “startle” response and loss of interest in usual activities. They might withdraw and want to avoid contact with the outside world. Acute stress disorder is more serious and long-lasting and can also involve dissociation — where people experience changes in their sense of self, time and memory — along with severe anxiety, hypervigilance and flashbacks. PTSD is very similar to acute stress disorder but lasts longer and interferes with regular activities.

People shouldn’t be afraid to seek counseling, said Ann Hartman, a licensed clinical social worker with a private practice in Bangor. “It’s OK to get help. It’s actually a strong thing,” she said. A counselor can help patients understand what’s happening to them, identify any triggers and ensure they are taking care of themselves.

There are different therapies and paths to wellness. Hartman said it’s important for people to stay connected to others, as, “Trauma can be a pretty isolating experience.” And some people find mindfulness practices — like meditation or yoga — helpful. It can also be comforting to people to do something positive, whether it’s giving a donation or volunteering at a local charity, “to feel connected, like they’re trying to make something good out of something so bad,” Hartman said. “What we’re talking about is trying to make people feel empowered again.”

Empowered again. It’s possible, especially when people come together, to go on together.

Maine’s statewide crisis number is 1-888-568-1112.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is a writer and storyteller. As editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News, she writes the newspaper's opinion on matters from Kittery to Fort Kent.