What can we learn about ourselves from living through a pandemic? As a therapist with specialization in trauma, I have been considering the potential benefit of viewing the pandemic through the lens of trauma, more specifically collective trauma. Let me put this lens into focus by explaining trauma, collective trauma, and how these relate to the pandemic.
Trauma can be defined both as the event that causes distress or injury or the response to such an event (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). It is defined by an occurrence in which one is “unable to do anything to change the situation” and the emotional response to that, which often alters one’s worldview (NICABM, 2020). Trauma is defined by the impact that it has on the person experiencing it (American Psychological Association, n.d.). As Bessel Van der Kolk, renowned trauma researcher explains, trauma is “the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside people (Psychotherapy Networker, 2014).” Trauma, in my opinion, is something that can only be labeled by the person that has experienced it/is experiencing it, as only that person truly knows the internal impacts and effects, or “imprint.”
While I believe trauma can’t be defined by anyone else, I feel compelled to say that we have all experienced a collective trauma moving through this pandemic. A collective trauma is “a cataclysmic event that shatters the basic fabric of society” and the term “refers to the psychological reactions to a traumatic event that affect an entire society” and is “an ongoing reconstruction of the trauma in an attempt to make sense of it” (Hirschberger, 2018).
This definition resonates because the experience has been traumatic for many. No matter what your “imprint” or if this definition fits for you, knowledge of trauma and its impacts can be helpful to gain greater understanding of our own experience and/or the experience with which we interact. Through this lens of trauma, engaging in the aforementioned “attempt to make sense of it” can lead to the potential ability to use the experience of the pandemic to learn about ourselves in ways we might not have otherwise and enable us to integrate that knowledge to inform our future in positive ways.
Sometimes in our work as therapists, with trauma survivors it has been helpful to envision the healing process as a grief process. This includes the processing of the pandemic (Stanaway, 2020). Many of us have felt grief related to the impact of COVID-19. There are the objective losses (all of our life and death events) and the subjective losses or control and predictability in our everyday lives. In the trauma definition above we see it being defined by the loss of ability to change things. In collective trauma we may grieve the loss of the stability and predictability in the “basic fabric of society” that has been shattered. Many are familiar with the Kubler-Ross stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance (Kübler-Ross, 1970). In Finding Meaning: the sixth stage of grief, David Kessler identified a 6th stage of grief: meaning. One way of “making sense” of this collective trauma is identifying what meaning we can make from it. What meaning does this experience hold for you and how can it inform your future in terms of improving and increasing well-being?
Some helpful questions to ponder to gather this information are:
How have different life areas changed as a result of the pandemic (or how did they change) what did you like and not like about these changes?
How can this reflection inform how you move forward; what do you want to take and what do you want to leave (if possible)?
How did you respond? Focus on what you did to make it through. If you are reading this you must have done what was needed.
What strengths and skills did you employ/are you still employing?
How can you continue to use those moving forward? And what meaning do these strengths and your ability to adapt to the changes hold for you?
Did you notice any changes to how you feel about what you do and how you do it?
What is most important to you now?
Creating positive psychological change in response to a traumatic event is something that has been documented. A 1989 study of 52 adults coping with bereavement found that most identified themselves as stronger, more competent, and better able to handle other potential crises in life after their traumatic loss (Calhoun, Lawrence & Tedeschi, Richard, 1989).
While I don’t think one would choose to participate in such an event, all of us received our invitation. Perhaps we can change our perspective on this and view it as an entrance into the potential for greater understanding of what brings us meaning in life, the strengths we have, and how we can combine these to create a more meaningful life.
Britte Garrett is a counselor with the UI Employee Assistance Program. UI EAP is a free and confidential short term counseling service for UI employees and their families. Contact UI EAP at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-335-2085. Appointments are offered at the University Services Building, University Employee Health Clinic (1st Floor Boyd Tower), or via zoom.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Trauma. In APA dictionary of psychology. Retrieved March 1, 2022, from https://dictionary.apa.org/trauma
Calhoun, Lawrence & Tedeschi, Richard. (1989). Positive Aspects of Critical Life Problems: Recollections of Grief. Omega-journal of Death and Dying - OMEGA-J DEATH DYING. 20. 265-272. 10.2190/QDY6-6PQC-KQWV-5U7K.
Kübler-Ross, E. (1970). On death and dying. Collier Books/Macmillan Publishing Co.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Trauma. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved February 28, 2022, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/trauma.
National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine. (3/28/20). NICABM. YouTube. When the COVID-19 Pandemic Leaves Us Feeling Helpless. Retrieved March 1, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVOt_KOT8Zk.
Psychotherapy Networker. (8/11/14) Psychotherapy Networker. YouTube. “Bessel van der Kolk Explains What Trauma Is.” Retrieved March 1, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vwNX0Qo1IA.
Stanaway, Caitlin (June 8, 2020). The Stages of Grief: Accepting the Unacceptable. University of Washington Counseling Center. https://www.washington.edu/counseling/2020/06/08/the-stages-of-grief-accepting-the-unacceptable/.