In many parts of the world, the coronavirus pandemic rages on. People all over the world have lost jobs, livelihood, loved ones and with it, a sense of purpose. The pandemic has had a tremendous impact on individuals worldwide regardless of age or ethnicity. Millions have tried to keep afloat amid a year of grief, loss, depression, anxiety and hopelessness.
After the pandemic ends, the subsequent effects of collective or mass trauma could continue spinning across communities for years to come. The question presents itself – what can we do in a both a collective and individual capacity to heal from the mental repercussions that the pandemic has brought into focus?
How is shared trauma different from individual trauma?
Mental Health Experts refer to the pandemic as an example of “mass trauma”, “shared trauma” or “collective trauma”.
“Individual trauma is a traumatic event that happens to a person, whereas collective trauma happens to not just a small group of people but society,” said Dan Reidenberg, a mental health expert and executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. A major event that affects society at large becomes a stressor for people in a number of ways. Traumatic events like pandemic, war, genocide, natural distasters and the like change the way we process things on a day to day basis. Apart from affecting history, it also affects people’s memories and how they move ultimately move forward.
The COVID-19 Pandemic is an apt example of collective trauma at a global scale. Its effects can range from distress and fear, to feeling emotionally toxic, overwhelmed or numbed out. Each individual is affected in unique ways by a collective trauma. Some may not even recognize they have been affected until months or even years later when they look back. The aftermath can include mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD, sleep & eating disorders and more.
In normal circumstances, when facing a personal trauma or challenging time, we have the option to give ourselves a time-out by taking a break from it all – going to the movies, attending an event or meeting a friend. Such breaks can be hard to come by in a pandemic of restricted social gatherings, doom scrolling and the conversational constant around the pandemic. It can mean that we are stripped of our usual modes of seeking comfort and emotional stability. If we do little to replace our old strategies with new ones, there can be significant consequences.
What is the impact of Shared Trauma?
Collective or Shared Traumas change the way people approach life in general. They become transformative for a society at large in the sense that some societies start to define themselves by their collective trauma and how they heal from events like the pandemic.
For example, with the onset of the pandemic, people have been deprived of the experience of physical touch. Even something as simple as a handshake is less and less common. Some are confined within the four walls of their homes and have zero social interaction. Human beings are social creatures and this pandemic has forced people to limit their creative interactions with the environment. In fact, one of the ways we are hardwired to combat the stress response is to seek out social connection and meaningful interaction. As stress rises, and we cannot access such interaction in the same way we did before, the likelihood of developing symptoms of chronic stress rises. With it can come substance abuse as a way to mask the inner discomfort or even boredom we feel.
From a Yogic point of view, in order to deal with stresses we may shift from creatively interacting with our environment, to a more passive relationship with it. We may turn to TV/Movies or social media as a place of solace. As our creative interaction goes down, we increasingly feel numbed out and disconnected from our inner and outer spaces, setting the stage for internal imbalances. If you recognize this, consciously cultivate new habits which include creative interaction such as:
- Connecting with others on an interpersonal level
- Making a point to catch up with friends
- Expressive Arts such as dance, crafts , coloring & designing
- Writing & journaling
- Being in nature, gardening & getting fresh air and sunlight
Many people have also started to experience a heightened sense of awareness around their physical bodies. Some countries are reporting severe health anxiety as individuals are witnessing or being told about death in their immediate environment on such a massive scale.
It’s important to note that while society may be exposed to collective trauma, not everyone has been impacted the same way. Healthcare and Frontline workers face trauma because they feel more and more powerless to make a difference with every person they are not able to save. People with a history of personal trauma, people with backgrounds of significant hardship and adversity, people in financial ruin, and people who have recently experienced loss are likely to more severely feel the impact of the pandemic. Others find ways to numb out and shut down to survive without even realizing they are doing it. Even if you are not experiencing these effects through the pandemic, it doesn’t mean others are not.
Divided by the Pandemic, United by “DoomScrolling”
Doomscrolling is the new word for excessive screen time devoted to the absorption of cataclysmic news. Excessive amounts of negative news taken in through our senses can actually result in harmful psychological and physiological effects for some – creating a pessimistic and fear-based outlook through which the world is perceived.
When COVID-19 pandemic left people largely locked in their homes, the consumption of COVID related news shot up, as people everywhere searched desperately for resolution and clarity. Day or night, at some point we may have found ourselves falling into rabbit holes looking for coronavirus content including numbers, death tolls, effects of vaccines and more. Without realizing it, we may have become accustomed to searching for bad news. And it is important to recognize that millions are still left with the pandemic even as others begin to emerge.
The more we look at bad things happening, the more fearful we become. The more fearful we become, the amygdala or fear center grows both in size and in neural connections throughout the brain. If not reversed, our brain can become predisposed see the negative, the fearful and the painful even when the triggering event has passed.
Various studies conducted during the pandemic have corroborated the fact that doom scrolling leads to increased levels of anxiety, depression and sedentary behaviours. Sometimes people have started doom scrolling so much that they push themselves to the point of physical discomfort – excluding hope for a good night’s sleep. Oxford English Dictionary named “doomscrolling” the word of the year. The bottom line is that a constant search of bad news isn’t good for the brain. The obsessive need for information and news induced emotions builds momentum, especially for people who have been unable to socialize outside of their home lives.
Why do people doom scroll so much? Some of the possible reasons are:
- Feeling of safety in knowledge
- Trying to exert some measure of control
- Being able to express feelings somewhere
- Boosting one’s voice
In countries like India, people have drastically fallen victim to the habit of doom scrolling because they are constantly on the lookout for sources to help people in need and verify sources of oxygen supply, medication drugs with respect to Covid.
What can we do as a society and as individuals to combat these increased levels of stress and anxiousness? Let’s find out!
Trauma Recovery and Finding New Strategies
Trauma overwhelms our ability to cope. It leaves us feeling helpless and hopeless. We are not necessarily recognizing the pandemic as a global stress event, which it is. The pandemic has affected people on a collective and individual level with many people showing up with stress symptoms without even recognizing the cause. Symptoms can include:
- Sleep problems
- Depression and Mood swings
- Changes in weight
- Feeling Isolated and Alone
- Feeling hopeless
- Feeling numbed out or disconnected from people and events
- Looking at life with a negative or fearful point of view
These are only exacerbated by the fact that engaging and connecting with others is one of the main strategies human beings use to deal with stressors such as the above. The very fact that we cannot connect in the same way as before the pandemic, is absolutely hampering our ability to cope better.
But there are practices we can adopt to cope better and to heal in a way that helps us live our life fully. After all, what is life if not lived with peace, calm and tranquility?
If you have lost a loved one in the pandemic, give yourself the time to feel what you feel. Because it hurts so much, our tendency can be to want to lock it away, escape, or avoid it. Instead, try to be present to what you feel. Stay out of the story and refuse to fuel blame or regret. Instead, feel and breathe with the feelings that are there in your body rather than the story in your head. As you do this, you will find that at first it will hurt more. But then, day by day you will begin to feel clearer. Take it one day at a time rather than asking yourself when it will be over.
People handle grief differently. People respond to traumatic events differently. It’s okay to not fit into the conventional stages of grief: Denial → Anger → Bargaining → Depression → Acceptance. It’s okay to forge your own path. It’s okay to not accept the circumstances that were handed to you. It’s okay to blame destiny and most of all, it’s okay to not be okay. Your grief is yours alone and only you can go through it to your best capacity and come out on the other side. There is no specific timeline and you have to honor yours. You won’t be the same person you were before, but you will be able to move forward with this event as a part of the person you have become. In the meantime, you can adopt certain practices to help you cope better:
- Find a support group – talking to people who have been in the same boat as you will help you feel less alone and helps row the boat with greater strength
- Positive affirmations – what you say to yourself becomes a part of you. Combining affirmations with Yoga Nidra described later will be even more effective.
- Seek help – Sometimes we may feel our friends and family are no longer able to listen. Take the step to seek professional help even if you think you don’t need it. It can be incredibly helpful to have someone to talk to whose only job it is to listen.
- Meditate – Spiritual exercises such as meditation and Yoga Nidra help calm and the mind, reduce stress and build a peaceful place from which we can experience the pain rather than becoming overwhelmed by it.
Creating a positive shared meaning around the trauma is the first step towards collective healing. When the timing is right, consider creating shared memorial events with flowers and pictures to pay respects to lives lost. Mourning with others who are or have experienced the same can be tremendously healing. Shared memorial services can happen via zoom if in-person requires caution.
Community talking sessions or support groups are another way to cope with loss and talk in a safe and open space. It can be tremendously healing to share with others who have had similar experiences and together acknowledge what you have been through. Freely talking about what happened is key to moving to the last stage of handling grief – which is acceptance. Acceptance becomes much easier through the process of sharing with someone who has been in the same situation as you have.
Ask yourself if you are excessively living in the mind and emotions and not enough in the body. You can change the state of your mind by changing the state of your body. Consider practicing yoga on your own, by zoom or in-person. This will help you get back into your body and help stabilize your mind and emotions. Your body is your foundation– your home. If you are excessively in your mind, you are not in the best place to withstand stressors. The more you can stay in the body as your foundation, the more resilience you’ll have to whatever you are facing.
A great way to resolve and accept your emotions is through some type of meditation like Yoga Nidra, which is practiced lying down. Yoga Nidra helps restore a healthy sleep cycle and improves disturbed sleep patterns. With consistent practice it can actually reduce the size and number of neural connections in the Amygdala, the fear center, and help us rewire the brain for peace. For more information on Yoga Nidra, you can find guided I AM Yoga Nidra experiences on YouTube or on a convenient app such as this one: I AM Yoga Nidra for Apple and Android.
Even if you have not been directly impacted by the pandemic, it’s important to engage in self-care activities. We need to consciously replace old strategies with new ones to stabilize both our body and mind. Otherwise, our least helpful habits are likely to take over.
Simple practices in your day-to-day life can help short circuit feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety, hopelessness and fear:
- Engage in meaningful work. Adopt a pet. Help your neighbour or friends.
- Connect versus isolating. Check up on your peers and friends. Set time to have social time together by video call – maybe with a meal or a cup of tea. Talk to your loved ones about what you and they are feeling. Don’t just say “Yes, I ‘m fine,” if you are not.
- Exercise once a day for 20-30 minutes. Just walking in a nearby park will do wonders.
- Adopt meditative and restorative practices such as Yoga Nidra. Yoga Nidra helps with anxiety, depression, PTSD and Addiction and will help improve sleep quality. You can also take an online course to help yourself cope better
- Eat properly. Sleep well and take adequate rest. All of these affect your mind and emotions.
- Avoid obsessively reliving a traumatic event or engaging in worry. Seek professional help if you think you might be suffering from PTSD
- Minimize media exposure. Less doom scrolling and screen time. More “me time”
- Accept your feelings. Avoidance leads to more unresolved feelings and emotions.
- Human Touch. When allowable, get a massage, cuddle, hold hands or link arms with your kids, friends or loved ones. Human touch and affection is something we must have for mental and emotional balance. Without it we are more prone to loneliness, mood and anxiety disorders, immune disorders and more.
- Engage in the creative activities as listed earlier.
Last but definitely not the least, keep your attention on the positives. Where your attention goes, your energy flows. Life is constantly changing. Eventually even this will turn for the better.
Originally published online at www.kaminidesai.com on June 7, 2021