February 5, 2021

Healing from collective trauma

Learn how communities and individuals can successfully respond to events and experiences that may leave some people feeling powerless.



 

Cosette Taillac

Cosette Taillac, vice president of national mental health and wellness at Kaiser Permanente

The past year has not been easy.

The COVID-19 pandemic not only stole our sense of “normal,” but many people also suffered the loss of jobs, homes, and even loved ones. The anger and sorrow from years of racial inequality boiled over into heated protests across the country. Stress over the 2020 election split the country, and even some families, apart.

Our shared trauma is significant. Cosette Taillac, vice president of national mental health and wellness at Kaiser Permanente, and a licensed clinical social worker, explains the nature of trauma and how people can respond to challenging times in ways that make them stronger and more resilient. 

What is collective trauma?

Collective trauma is a shared emotional reaction to a terrible event. People often feel powerless as a result of these experiences. In a nation as large as ours, it’s uncommon to have the whole country experience trauma at the same time, and yet we’ve had several events like that in the past year.

What are some of the ways communities successfully deal with traumatic events?

The communities that respond well to collective trauma are those that create a positive shared meaning around it.

Communities tend to naturally know how to do this. After traumatic events, people often create spontaneous memorials with flowers and pictures, or organize ceremonies like the one that took place in front of the Lincoln Memorial to honor loved ones lost to COVID-19. They organize community talking sessions. They establish programs to help others who have experienced similar things.

People who go through experiences like these need to come together and acknowledge what happened and talk about their feelings. We’ve had to find new, creative ways to do these things while staying safe during the pandemic. But this is how communities heal from trauma.

How can individuals heal from trauma?

Trauma is a stress reaction in response to an event. It can become a problem if it causes significant and long-lasting symptoms that make it hard for people to function. To help avoid this, look for ways to give yourself a break, make time for self-care, and find moments of hope.

Human contact is central to healing. A great way to fight feelings of powerlessness is to look for ways to help other people who are suffering to remind them, and yourself, that we are in this together. Healing comes from community connection, meaningful work, engaging in spiritual practices, and being of service to others. Simple gestures, such as offering to grocery-shop for a neighbor or friend, not only help others feel less isolated and alone, but will likely make you feel better, too.

Does trauma lead to mental health conditions?

While trauma can impact preexisting mental health conditions or substance use disorders, it usually doesn’t lead to a mental health condition or diagnosis. Trauma can cause emotional and psychological distress. In response, people may feel worried and unsure of themselves, and may sometimes cry. These feelings are normal responses to difficult events.

Depending on the nature of the trauma, how severe it is, and how long it lasts, some people do experience post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. But most people who experience trauma heal without the need for mental health interventions.

When should someone seek professional help?

Life is full of challenges and losses. Each hardship we face is a chance to develop our coping skills: connecting with others, sharing both our grief and our hope for the future, and practicing self-care and compassion. As we do, we build our resiliency muscles and become better able to adapt and overcome hard times in the future.

If you’ve tried lots of different things to change your mood and the things that usually work aren’t helping you bounce back — and if this continues for more than 2 or 3 weeks  it may be time to seek professional help.

Learn more about Kaiser Permanente’s mental health care at kp.org/mentalhealth.