Collective Trauma – when what if has become now what?

By Jaime Grainger – MFT, Intern

verified by Psychology Today

In a short period of time, many have been subjected to a global alarm in regard to the Coronavirus. In the midst of an event that many have never had to endure, some may be feeling as if their country has failed them while others are experiencing feelings of increased anxiety due to uncertainty. With exposure to external stressors such as businesses closing, the potential for becoming ill, social distancing, and many working from home or seeking new ways to work and support themselves, many are experiencing the effects of unpredictability, along with emotions related to grief and anger (Kecmanovic, 2020).

When it’s no longer a possibility to partake in certain things that reduce stress and produce joy, such as going to the gym or out to eat, this can further increase stress and lower feelings of comfort. Due to this sudden decrease in predictability and routine, a vicious cycle in regards to a lack of self-care methodology has also formed.

Media exposure and psychological messages that society is currently receiving also impacts psychological distress. Statements such as “do not go into large crowds, have weeks’ worth of food readily available, thousands of people have now been diagnosed and the mortality rate is increasing each day, we are now exceeding every country in regards to cases” etc., can also greatly influence feelings of stress and trauma (Noam & Habil, 2020).

Trauma Exposure

This exposure can also cause indirect or secondary trauma to be experienced, affecting many due to exposure to the struggles currently being faced by medical personnel, and learning of the lack of medical resources currently available can induce further fear (Noam & Habil, 2020). Witnessing that others have been quick to react has also triggered psychological fears for many in regards to losing control and running out of resources (Hoffman, 2020). Witnessing others stock up on unreasonable amounts of resources is also a trigger, being that this communicates to others that resources are low and contribute to a collective fear which results in further psychological reactions (Hoffman, 2020).

Social Isolation

As many have recently witnessed, social isolation is another thing that can impact psychological well-being. As humans, we are wired for social interaction and connection. On top of this many are currently being faced with the pressures of buying group A (essential workers) more time, by group B (non-essential workers) committing to extended periods of social isolation to avoid further exposure.

While this is a supportive and collective way to increase safety protocols, social isolation may feel like a survival threat to some. In Borges et al. (2019) study it was found that long periods of social isolation can induce fight or flight responses and activate the sympathetic nervous system, along with the brains hypothalamic pituitary adrenocortical axis (HPA) as a way to combat “the threat” leading to increased responses to stress.

In looking at animal studies this has also proven to be associated with alterations in brain neurochemistry resulting in anxiety and depressive symptoms (Borges et al., 2019). Borges et al. also acknowledged that we as humans are prone to seek out social connection and support during times of increased stress as a means of joint protection (2019). Being that we are faced with a time where this direct contact is not an option for most we are seeing that this stress is increasing feelings of anxiety, depression, and cognitive declines in humans as well (Borges et al., 2019).

Facing the uncertainty

Despite the uncertainty many are facing during this time, the truth is that there is no time during our lives when we have not been faced with uncertainty (Jenkinson, 2016). Anyone could die in a car crash tomorrow, jobs could be lost, houses could burn down, etc. In fact, the only thing that is certain from the time we are born, as unfortunate as it may be, is the fact that one day each of us will die. According to Jenkinson (2016) due to this, we are pushing away uncertainty all of the time and therefore it affects us more when we no longer can, such as in the face of a pandemic. Due to this, we will look for distractions throughout our entire lives to push away these feelings of uncertainty. However, the reality of this is that life, in fact, is uncertain, and things begin to become less overwhelming when we are able to face and sit with the reality of the uncertainty we are faced with each day. T

 Coping strategies

  1. Aside from accepting uncertainty, expressing gratitude has also proven beneficial during times of high stress (Emmons & McCollough, 2003). Things such as writing down 1-3 things that you are grateful for each day can help to maintain hope during times of helplessness.
  2. Seeking to manage perceptions is also a beneficial coping skill during this time. Instead of focusing on all of the things that cannot currently be enjoyed, practice looking at this time as a way to reconnect relationships through more frequent phone calls or virtual hangouts, start back up an old hobby, make a house repair, or strengthen existing bonds (Hoffman, 2020).
  3. Accomplish goals and complete to-do lists that have been lingering or utilize personal development such as expanding knowledge or pursuing home workouts (Hoffman, 2020).
  4. Utilize teletherapy if support is needed or there are current struggles accepting negative emotions. Avoiding emotions will only make them stronger. Look at them with curiosity and notice them (Kecmanovic, 2020).
  5. Family psychologist Milton Erikson, once said: “life is lived in the present and directed toward the future”. Try and let go of what could happen and live in what is happening. Doing this can positively impact subjective well-being and allow for reflecting on what is important (Hoffman, 2020).
  6. Practicing flexibility can also aid in psychological preparedness during these times as it will allow for shifts in perceptions and actions as needed, alongside being more readily able to react to stress (Noam & Habil, 2020). Allow yourself to let go of rigid assumptions and instead of reverting back to survival mode, try and think of flexibility as medicine for coping with difficult times (Noam & Habil, 2020).

With the current circumstances remember we are all in this together and there are not only options, but there is also hope.

See my Reading Recommendations


Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal

of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389.

Hoffman, B. (2020, March 20). Retrieved from

Jenkinson, S. (2016). Die Wise: a manifesto for sanity and soul.

Kecmanovic, J. (2020, March 20). Retrieved from

Noam, G. & Habil. (2020, March 20). Retrieved from

Viana Borges, J., Souza de Freitas, B., Antoniazzi, V., de Souza dos Santos, C., Vedovelli, K., Pires, V. N., Paludo, L., Martins de Lima, M. N., & Bromberg, E. (2019). Social isolation and social support at adulthood affect epigenetic mechanisms, brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels and behavior of chronically stressed rats. Behavioural Brain Research366, 36–44.


Want to read more?

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter!

Get the latest news, curated articles on mental health, tips, and more!