21 Jun Healing Our National Trauma: Lessons from a Millennial and a Republican
“I’m exhausted and overwhelmed and I don’t know what to do. I’m struggling under the weight of this.”
Two days into the protests over George Floyd’s death, I received the above WhatsApp message from a young man—a millennial—who I’ve been working for the past several months. It wasn’t that he wanted to shut the event out and pretend it didn’t happen. Actually, the opposite was true. He was so consumed by the tragedy that his central nervous system went into overload. Fortunately, his message came in at 10:00 PM, so it made sense to offer up a simple and a concrete action step he could take. “Can you go to bed and call it a day? Things will look differently in the morning.” He shot back with an equally simple response, “K.”
The next morning, I checked in on him. Quite intentionally, I crafted a message that would enable him to become an objective observer of himself and reframe his thoughts on manifesting resilience. “So, what’s Jack’s [not the client’s real name] plan this morning for making meaning and taking action to address this tragedy?” He responded back immediately, “A group of my friends and I are creating a social media campaign to address racial injustice.” I shot back the affirmation, “#Brilliant.” It was one of those moments that allowed me to marvel at how human beings—even those who live with heightened trauma responses to stressful events—are able to move themselves, their relationships, and the world around them in a reparative direction.
Identifying What We’re Experiencing
Through my patients, I’m able to learn what’s affecting individuals and what’s affecting our national collective. My current patients have helped me understand that the world we live in has become individually and collectively traumatic. One of my patients—a CPA at a large accounting firm who is a single mother of two adolescent boys—relayed over our last Doxy session that she, “Feels like I’m living in the film Zombieland. Only I’m one of the characters who gets eaten. Just when you think things can’t get worse, they do.” Fortunately, this woman has a strong social support system, which includes a mother who lives a few minutes away, supportive colleagues, and reliable friends. In this regard, she is more fortunate than most of my patients. But even with these strong systems around her, she’s suffering from a host of trauma-induced symptoms, including sleeplessness, feeling overwhelmed and hopeless, digestive disorders, and exhaustion. In other words, she’s suffering from the common symptoms of trauma.
According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is an emotional response to a distressing event. The long-term responses to this event include unpredictable emotions, feeling disconnected from one’s self and the world around them, disturbed sleep patterns and nightmares, strained relationships, and physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, and gastrointestinal issues like constipation or diarrhea.
It’s important to note the distressing event causing a traumatic response can manifest itself directly and indirectly. The most apparent direct form of causation is a single event that overloads our nervous system. Events that fall into this category are fairly obvious and include: the sudden or violent death of a loved one, physical abuse, and being a victim of a crime or accident. But we also experience trauma though more indirect ways, such as simply being by or living in an environment where we feel unsafe and destabilized by events that are out of our control.
Recognizing a Toxic Culture
Ready or not, we’ve experienced a series of disrupting events in the past several months that have shaken our collective and made us realize how vulnerable we are, how unsafe the world is, and how contentious, vitriolic, and outright dangerous our leadership has become. COVID-19 has forced us into quarantines where we rely on virtual connections to the outside world. While certainly valuable, the technology makes us painfully aware that our humanity and our need for physical connection has not kept up with these technological advances. For the vulnerable and impoverished within our collective who may not have been able to rely on technology, quarantine and sheltering-in-place has only further amplified the isolation and lack of support they experience. This gap in which we’re living is precisely what many of my patients describe as an “alternative reality”.
Current events have forced us to recognize that we live in a toxic and traumatic culture plagued by social unrest, economic instability, injustice, prejudice, and lingering threats to our physical health and emotional well-being. While in the past, many of us expected social and political systems to ameliorate these ills and enhance the quality of our lives, but now we are seeing that these systems never supported our collective equally. They either contributed to or perpetuated imbalances and injustices that kept the scales titled toward those who manifest toxic power. This creates a collective culture of confusion, isolation, uncertainty and stress for many people as they awaken and develop awareness that the very systems that were meant to provide “protection and governance” have systematically caused trauma, isolation, and even death to human beings who are marginalized in our society.
Cut off from our personal networks, and with our systems revealed as unjust, we currently live in a nation defined by division and isolation. The resulting angst and stress we experience is only amplified by the isolationist, impulsive, and vindictive policies being chaotically implemented by our nation’s leaders. The net effect is the splintering of the foundations upon which we have established supportive, protective, and nurturing relationships, found safety and comfort, and built our individual and collective lives.
National or Collective Trauma
This state of acute instability and distress that is shared among people united by a cultural identity is known in clinical circles as collective or national trauma. In her article for Psychology Today, Danielle Render Trumaud, M.S. defines collective trauma as follows:
Whereas the term “trauma” typically refers to the impact that a traumatic incident has on an individual or a few people, collective trauma refers to the impact of a traumatic experience that affects and involves entire groups of people, communities, or societies. Collective trauma is extraordinary in that not only can it bring distress and negative consequences to individuals but in that it can also change the entire fabric of a community (Erikson, 1976)
As I discuss in my book Fragile Power, psychological constructs of any kind, including collective trauma, impact individuals and groups united by a shared cultural identity on three levels of their existence:
(1) The personal
(2) The interpersonal
(3) The cultural
As this relates to the patient I mentioned above, current events were disrupting her day-to-day life to such a degree, that she started experiencing a disintegration of her sense of self; she was becoming more and more disconnected from the scaffolding that historically had kept her life together. On a personal level, as a successful, smart, and strong single parent bearing the roles of both a father and mother for her children, she saw it as her sole responsibility to provide financial stability for her sons—as well as her mother. As her long-term ability to carry on these responsibilities came into question, she experienced a diminution of her self-concept and self-esteem. In the interpersonal sphere, while her home and relationship with her mother had historically provided her safety and a refuge from life’s stressors, her home became, literally and figuratively, a boxing ring for her testosterone-saturated sons. Having to constantly referee her boys, her home lost its place as a sanctuary and became a site of stress and conflict for the first time in years. Finally, from a cultural standpoint, this life-long republican suddenly felt misrepresented by a political party in which she had historically taken great pride. While still committed to her party’s economic and libertarian policies, she was intellectually and ethically conflicted by the rapid transformation of its values. “Sure, I’m loving the gains I’ve made in the (stock) market, but I’m feeling it’s not worth the price of the loss of integrity and peace of mind. I thought we could create positive change for everyone, not chaos, division and hatred…”
While my client felt alone in her feelings, data shows she is far from alone in being riddled with anxiety from a life destabilized. A recent study found that more than half of Americans have suffered from at least one mental health issue during the COVID-19 pandemic. For individuals and families who lost part or all of their income, the incidence of mental health problems increases to 65%. These systemic shocks to our collective haven’t ended with the COVID-19 epidemic though; as I mentioned, the serial changes we’ve experienced from the deadly and pernicious use of power has shattered the foundations of our lives.
Finding Our Footing, Repairing Damage, and Moving Forward
Whether it’s experienced individually or nationally, trauma is destructive; but trauma can be healed. Just as we grow in the process of healing other disorders, our recovery from collective trauma can enable us to create a stronger, transformational foundation for our lives and the world in which we live. The first step in establishing this foundation is engaging in a tangible process of reconnecting with our power by reclaiming our personal, relational and cultural values. Through this intentional process, we can be guided by our internal compasses instead of being cast adrift and bewildered by the pandemonium of modern systemic forces.
As I outlined above, trauma occurs on three levels of our human experience. As such, we have to reclaim power first over the intrapersonal aspects of our lives, and then move out into the interpersonal and cultural spheres of our existence.
Over the years, I’ve developed a simple, but highly effective, exercise that I ask my patients to complete as we embark on the therapeutic process of healing and rebuilding from individual and collective trauma. This exercise is one that I’m currently prescribing to everyone I’m treating, regardless of the length of time we’ve been working together or their presenting issue. It’s also one that you can do in the privacy of your home, alone, or with your family or group of friends. To do the exercise, spend 30 minutes focusing and writing down three values you have in the four key areas of your life listed below. In the wake of the collective trauma we’ve experienced, for each of the four areas listed below, I encourage you to consider at least one value that represents the collective. For example, when it comes to relational health, what is a value you want to see represented by the collective? To assist you in the process, I’ve listed mine in parentheses.
- Physical health: (Discipline)
- Relational health (Trustworthiness)
- Financial health: (Honesty)
- Spiritual health: (Humility)
I chose these four key areas (physical, relational, financial, and spiritual health) on which to focus based on empirical evidence that shows health is attained holistically rather than myopically. In addition, I’ve found personally and professionally that healing and transformation come intentionally as a result of cultivating meaning, purpose, and direction in life—and have encouraged patients to do the same. In times of stress, pain, and confusion—seasons in our life when we feel thrashed about in an existential sea—[re]claiming our values helps us establish a deep and meaningful anchor.
The past few months have been trying for humanity. Lives have been lost and shattered. Systems put in place to protect have proved—yet again—to be dangerous and deadly. At the same time, the intimacies of our lives have been strained to the point of breaking, shattered by the intensity of the unknown and menacing. As a result, we are living in a state of acute national and collective trauma. Unfortunately, unlike times in the past when we had leadership that could help guide us through the distress, today’s leaders are more concerned with creating division and disruption than healing through unity and respect. Fortunately, we have everything we need within our personal sphere of influence to heal ourselves as well as the people we love, and to rebuild the world upon which we are privileged to exist on a footing of compassion and grace. The first step in the process is reclaiming our personal values and striving each hour of every single day to live a life consistent with them. In this regard, we can all take a page out of the play book from my millennial patient who I referred to in the opening of this post. Yes, he was exhausted and untethered by the state of world affairs. Yes, he was shocked, disappointed, and fearful of the actions of our leaders and the systems they controlled. But one thing was certain: he wasn’t going to wallow in their malevolence, stumbling around waiting for them to change. Instead, he would awaken each morning to greet his values, find a community of others who shared them, and use them as a guide to repair a world in desperate need of reparation. Let’s join him.
[The clinical examples used are composites of cases of patients and intentionally altered to protect client confidentiality and the integrity of the therapeutic relationship.]