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  • Dr. Renee Carr

America's Collective Trauma

Updated: Jan 17, 2021

January 8, 2021

Defining Trauma

Clinical psychological trauma can result when a person experiences an actual or threat of death, serious injury, or sexual violence – or is a direct witness to any of these. These intense experiences must be experienced or seen first-hand – and not only by exposure to social media images, televised news, or pictures.

Last week, over 30 million Americans watched as the U.S. Capitol was invaded. For many networks, the number of people watching the news coverage was the highest watched news story in their history.

Although watching the intense rage and violent riot does not, by itself, lead to clinical trauma (e.g., PTSD), the widespread witnessing of the invasion and take-over of a national symbol can create a collective trauma throughout our nation. Collective trauma is when a group, community, or nation collectively experiences a traumatic and horrific event – such as an invasion or terror attack.

(photo credit: Jason Andrew, New York Times)

Watching Terrorism on TV

During the U.S. Capitol invasion, the rioters deliberately acted to incite terror, fear, and helplessness. They acted with rage, intense aggression, and violence; made verbal and physical threats of death, and engaged in vile acts of destruction.

The Capitol building is an emotionally strong symbol that represents, for millions of Americans, protection, group belonging, social identity, and self-understanding. The rioters used terror and violence in an attempt to overthrow not only this American symbol but also America’s political system.

The widespread witnessing of the Capitol invasion has intensified American's collective trauma. The live exposure to terror coupled with the lack of viable police protection put many Americans at high-risk for trauma-related psychological complications. The potential for death and serious injury was not only a threat, it was a rage-fueled promise.

Symptoms of Collective Trauma

Because of the U.S. Capitol invasion, many Americans will experience at least one of the following psychological symptoms of collective trauma.

The most common psychological effect will be mild. With mild levels of stress, frustration, and anxiety; and a mild increase in sleep disturbance (insomnia), appetite disturbance, alcohol consumption, and smoking.

The majority of Americans who experience collective trauma in response to the U.S. Capitol attack will experience these “mild” symptoms.

A step-up from mild is ‘moderate’. If a person experiences mistrust, uncertainty, depression, agitation, or higher levels of insomnia or anxiety, s/he is experiencing a more intense collective trauma in reaction to the Capitol riot. It is expected that many Americans will fall in this category, but this group will be significantly smaller than the “mild” group.

The last, and smallest, group of Americans will experience “severe” collective trauma. This will include the onset of panic attacks, PTSD, Acute Stress Disorder, Major Depression, and other diagnoses for clinical depression and anxiety.

Symptoms in Communities

Communities and groups of connected individuals will also experience collective trauma. There may be a collective change in mood, collective loss of connection among the group, difficulty for group members to maintain relational ties with loved ones, and a collective feeling of alienation. There can also develop a sense of mistrust and suspicion of those outside the community as well as larger governmental systems.

National Symptoms

As a nation, we can expect a much larger but more general psychological effect. In general, there will be an increase in uncertainty and a perceived lack of control at the individual and governmental level. Many will be unsure if they can control or prevent possible threats to their life or safety.

Many will be unsure if the safety of themselves or their leaders can be guaranteed. This uncertainty of safety is a common collective traumatic reaction to both domestic and foreign acts of terrorism (e.g., DC Sniper Attacks, 9/11).

We can also expect a widespread decrease in the sense of community, community-identity, national cohesion, and national morale.

Our nation, and the world around us, has already been traumatized with COVID-19 and the major life changes that resulted. The additional trauma of the U.S. Capitol riot has served to only multiply our nation’s collective trauma.

Not every person will experience the collective trauma in the same way. Not every person will have the same symptoms or reactions.

Yet, the presence of national trauma is undeniable.

Helping America Heal

To help America heal, a sense of unity and national cohesion must be created and demonstrated. A new definition of “patriotic” must be created and communicated at all levels of community and government – with terminology that resonates kindness, respect, and unity.

Leaders must also provide equitable and aggressive security to help erase the widespread experience of safety uncertainty and to do so by creating procedures that are fair, consistent, and just.

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