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April 18, 2020

How to Process Collective Trauma

“[Collectively], we’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11–things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.

We’re also feeling anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.” –David Kessler

We are in a time of collective transition on this planet, and we are feeling the birth pains. For many of us, these circumstances are also bringing to light fear and grief about other experiences that we haven’t fully processed. Slowing down the pace of life makes it harder to numb out or push past emotions we’ve been avoiding. The spread of the coronavirus highlights our own mortality and that of our loved ones, which can be a helpful–though sometimes uncomfortable–invitation to reevaluate our priorities and consider whether we’re living the life we want to live.

The experience of the pandemic has created trauma, both individually and collectively. We tend to think of trauma in a negative light, but it is simply a signal that’s too large for the nervous system to process. Because we lack the capacity to metabolize it in the moment, the signal gets stuck and our natural response (i.e. to run or shout) is truncated. The process of assimilating the trauma by moving the stuck energy through and completing the truncated response enables the brain to develop new neural networks and increases the capacity of our nervous system.

We all respond differently to trauma depending on how we’re wired; the most common responses are fight, flight, freeze and appease. If you’re finding yourself particularly on edge (i.e. lashing out at your partner about something that would have been a non-issue a couple months ago), bring awareness to what your system is doing (having a fight response), notice what it wants to do to let the response complete (i.e. cry), and give yourself the space to do that (at an appropriate time, of course). People process through things in different ways; some prefer physical outlets like running or dancing and others find painting effective, or talking with a friend. It can be helpful during times when emotions are running high to give yourself more space to process in the ways that work for you, like allowing extra time for journaling at the end of the day to sort through whatever might be weighing you down.

In making space to process, it becomes apparent how much extra energy is available to us when we release it from the places where it’s been stuck. Finding ways to move that energy helps us get in touch with our aliveness and agency even when things around us feel out of control. When shelter in place orders started in the Bay Area and friends there talked about being on lockdown and not having reliable access to certain foods like fruit, I felt my fear spike. I noticed my nervous system mobilizing to flee and went to work scrubbing my kitchen floor, harnessing the energy from my body’s emergency response in a way that was satisfying because it was so concrete. Giving that energy an outlet enabled the flight response to complete so my system could reset and I felt calm again. It also gave me the happy byproduct of a clean floor 🙂

This liminal time is an amazing opportunity for healing, individually and collectively. The experience of the pandemic is unearthing our unfinished business, giving us perspective on how we’ve been living and the space to make much-needed changes. It’s the perfect time to shed what no longer works and try something different. Who do you want to be when you emerge from this cocoon? What do you want to create? My wish for all of us is that the birth pains we’ve been experiencing as a global community would bring forth the new life we’ve been yearning for.

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Eva Neuhaus  |  Contribution: 1,505