How to Recover from the Collective Trauma of COVID-19
May is nationally recognized as Mental Health Month, a time to raise awareness of those living with mental or behavioral health issues and to help reduce the stigma so many experience. This year, we find ourselves facing a new mental health hurdle: the collective trauma brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tina Griffith, a licensed professional counselor at ThedaCare Behavioral Health-Oshkosh, explains the widespread phenomenon and offers a suggested road to recovery.
What is Collective Trauma?
“We have lived through unusual challenges unlike anything we’ve experienced in this country or the world for decades,” explained Griffith. “And there’s a name for what we are experiencing. It’s called collective trauma, which is defined as trauma that goes beyond the individual level to include: groups of people, communities, societies and countries.”
Increased exposure to prolonged stress has resulted in a level of grief, trauma and isolation that could lead to a secondary health crisis – one with persistent, serious mental and physical health consequences for years to come.
What are the Signs of Collective Trauma?
“Collective trauma shows up as increased depression and sadness, hopelessness, irritability, mood swings and not feeling secure,” said Griffith. “Changes in sleep patterns are a big sign of feeling traumatized. Having increased anxiety and avoidant behaviors, difficulty with overcoming worry, continual thoughts of trauma, not to mention loss of concentration and memory issues are other effects we may be experiencing.”
With each person, the effects will vary from mild to more severe.
“Maybe you just feel blasé, or you are avoiding things you normally did without pause, or work feels a lot harder than it normally does,” said Griffith. “Those all could be manifestations of collective trauma.”
How has COVID-19 Impacted Our Collective Mental Health?
“I think our trauma was magnified because we were all so surprised by the pandemic,” said Griffith. “Unless you were an epidemiologist studying viruses, you likely didn’t see this pandemic coming. Add to that the early uncertainty of not knowing what we should or shouldn’t be doing as health experts learned more about the virus, it left many of us essentially in shock for several months.”
The American Psychological Association (APA) conducted a Stress in America survey in February 2021. The survey results showed that “many adults are reporting undesired changes to their weight, increased drinking and other negative behavior changes that may be related to an inability to cope with prolonged stress.”
Specifically, the APA survey respondents provided the following statistics:
- 67% reported sleep pattern changes, sleeping more or less than normal or having sleep disturbance issues.
- 61% reported undesired weight changes; 42% gained weight, with 15 pounds being the median weight gain. Another 18% lost more weight than they wanted to, with 12 pounds being the median weight loss.
- 53% said they were less physically active than they wanted to be.
- 47% delayed or cancelled health care services.
- 25% of essential workers were diagnosed with mental health disorders.
- 23% reported drinking more alcohol to cope with their stress.
In various group settings, trauma is recognizable in peoples’ body language.
“The cues we might previously have read on someone’s face aren’t obvious now because of masking and other personal protection equipment,” said Griffith. “Instead, you might notice people sitting slumped over, not making eye contact or not interacting as they normally would. Some people may become teary-eyed more easily or be extra fidgety.”
Overcoming Collective Trauma
How do we as individuals – and as a society – recover from this trauma?
Recommendations from health experts to physically distance ourselves from others means traditional methods of coping – such as seeing family or friends, vacations, going to the gym to work out, or taking trips to a museum or the movies – may not be readily available at this time.
Griffith offered this advice:
- Start at the Individual Level
We all should begin to heal ourselves, and that will require some work. We have to regain some sense of control in our lives over the things we can directly affect and which directly affect us. Building connection with others and supporting others will be very important, even though that connection may look different than it did before the COVID pandemic.
- Build Meaning Into Your Life
A lot of people were faced with their own mortality and/or lost loved ones during the pandemic. As we recover, consider what you value most. Seek out healthy ways to be involved with what’s most important to you, and connect with what brings you joy and relief from stress. Take the time to look at something with the awe and wonder of a child. Look at the beauty of nature or people and admire the wonder in them. Practice mindfulness. That is, be present in the moment that you’re in right now. Don’t look ahead or back; just be with and enjoy what’s around you.
- Stay Focused
Make plans and set reasonable goals for things you want to accomplish so you can see there’s a future beyond what you are feeling right now. Giving back and helping others often boosts our morale and sense of community as well.
- Talk About How You’re Feeling
Most people have someone in their lives they can reach out to when they need help. You should also have open conversations with your primary care provider if you are struggling. They can offer suggestions for resources and programs. Remember, you are not alone.
Most of all, give yourself time.
“Our collective trauma is not going away overnight,” said Griffith. “We will all progress through it at our own rate, and it’s going to take some work, support and connection to do that. Ask for what you need and respond to others when they ask for help. We’ve all been through this together, now we have to work together to recover.”