Healing from Collective Trauma: Relational Therapy Opens Up Paths to Recovery

When a traumatic event affects a community, you may find yourself living in a state of collective traumain addition to your own individual trauma, often creating complicated conditions for coping in the wakeof the disturbing event. Healing from collective trauma through relational therapy can be a powerful experience that opens up the path to true and meaningful recovery.

Few had heard of Buffalo Creek until 1972. But on January 26th of that year, that would all change when, after heavy rains, the Pittston Coal Company’s coal slurry impoundment dam burst, releasing over 130 million gallons of black waste water into the West Virginia, creating a wave over 30 feet high that ravaged the coal towns dotted along the creek. The flood claimed 125 lives and the homes of over 4,000 people—out of a population of just 5,000. Children watched their parents drown, families were separated as each tried to spare themselves, homes were destroyed, livelihoods vanished, and lives were changed forever on that day, which had, until then, been just like any other—until it wasn’t.

In the wake of the tragedy, some turned to drugs to erase the horrific images burned into their minds. Some turned to alcohol to quiet the flashbacks that consumed them every time it rained. Some, like Carol Hoosier, whose parents both perished in the flood, turned to medicine. “I had a lot of guilt because I thought I left my parents there. I had to see a doctor to cope with their deaths,” she told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “There were a lot of feelings. People felt guilty because they were alive and others were dead.”

Indeed, not only the material landscape of Black Creek was transformed by the flood—the social and psychological topography of survivors was forever changed as well, including the “relationships and routines that had defined life there for generations.” As Neil Gross explains in The New York Times, “Without these social anchors, residents struggled to find meaning and purpose. They were disoriented and disconnected in ways that could outlast even the effects of their individual traumas. Socially, they were in a permanent state of shock.” The trauma was collective.

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The State of Collective Trauma

The concept of collective trauma is rooted in the belief that, as Gross notes, “norms, values and rituals”’ act as the anchors of social order. Together, they provide “the basis for solidarity and social cohesion.” Disruption of this social order via destabilizing events or conditions, such as natural disasters, war, terrorist attacks, financial crises, mass crimes, and group-targeted oppression or marginalization removes these anchors to cause collective trauma—that is, trauma which fundamentally alters the way individuals and communities feel and function.

Collective trauma survivors often experience a variety of mental health issues following the event or as they live through traumatic conditions, including PTSD, depression, and anxiety. However, while people who suffer individual traumas typically have their everyday environments relatively intact, socially and materially, those who experience collective trauma don’t. The basic internal and external organization of their lives has been disrupted, sometimes in permanent ways. As such, coping with trauma becomes not just an individual pursuit, but a collective one, as the community rebuilds and re-imagines itself. This can be a profoundly isolating process for both individuals and the group as a whole; while there can be comfort found in knowing that you are not alone in your traumatic state, being surrounded by others who are in the same state of psychiatric upheaval can present its own challenges, including the lack of a stable support network and living inside what psychohistorian Charles B. Strozier calls a “zone of sadness.”

Coping in the Wake of Collective Trauma

When trauma weaves itself into the fabric of a group as well as the individual psyche, people respond in a variety of ways in the search for healing and coping with the magnitude of events. For some, the community becomes a constant trigger, as the people and places that used to keep you tethered to a social order now become reminders of a lack of order. The rejection of the community becomes a way of escaping the fragments of trauma and forging a new identity for yourself outside of the traumatic experience. This may be particularly true if the community’s healing process doesn’t look the way you want or doesn’t happen in a timeframe that is consistent with your own.Another common reaction is cocooning

Another common reaction is cocooning yourself inside the community, feeling that the only people who understand you are those who have experienced what you have experienced. Rather than acting as a trigger, shared grief gives you a home for your emotions and place in which you are easily legible to others; you don’t have to explain because those around they already know. For some, living in a state of shared grief also serves as a way of honoring those lost or affected by the traumatic event or condition. Resolution and a return to normality can seem not only unrealistic, but undesirable, and may be experienced as a kind of erasure of your own history as well as a betrayal of those you love.

Neither reaction to collective trauma is inherently unhealthy; indeed, both reactions can be very normal at various points in the recovery process. However, for some, the extremity of these coping mechanisms only serve to deepen distress and prevent you from healing in positive and healthy ways. Splintering off from the community in a kind of self-exile or isolating yourself deep within a collective state of complicated bereavement, shutting away the outside world, can both act to augment traumatic responses, psychiatric disturbances, and behavioral instability in ways that require more intensive treatment than outpatient settings can provide. Furthermore, even those responses are less polar and more balanced can find themselves experiencing ongoing distress that is not adequately addressed by community resources, which may be overloaded after a mass traumatic event or may not exist at all. In these cases, residential care may be the best way to move forward and recover in a meaningful and sustainable way.

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Healing from Collective Trauma Through Relational Therapy

Seeking residential treatment following collective trauma can be an intimidating process regardless of what your reaction to the trauma has been thus far, whether you fear being triggered in ways you will be unable to cope with, not being understood by someone who has not shared your experience, or even worry that recovering will divorce you from a vital part of your own history. These fears are not unfounded; when choosing who to trust to guide your recovery it is imperative to seek out compassionate clinicians who have the training and expertise necessary to make your recovery journey a safe and loving experience that allows you to honor your own feelings and experiences. These clinicians will use an integrated array of therapies to open up multiple paths to healing in a way that makes sense for your unique situation.

One of the most powerful therapeutic modalities available for survivors of collective trauma is relational therapy, a psychotherapeutic approach founded on the belief that the human psyche is inherently shaped by our social and environmental experiences and the impact of these forces on your psychiatric wellbeing is essential to gaining true insight into yourself. Rather than understanding the purpose of therapy as an intrasubjective project, relational therapy explores emotional and behavioral disturbances through a social constructivist lens that takes into account the nature of your relationships, lived experiences, and sociocultural landscape to understand the sources and manifestations of your distress. By working within a trusting, supportive client-therapist relationship, you are able to more fully understand the impact of collective trauma on your psychological landscape and take concrete steps toward recovery. Relational therapy can be particularly valuable to collective trauma survivors not only because it inherently examines the broader context of community on your own traumatic experience and expression, but because it seeks to respects your history as an essential part of your being and allows you to more fully uncover your authentic self.

Healing from collective trauma begins with healing individuals. By getting the help you need and allowing yourself to engage in a powerful recovery process, you can integrate your experiences in a way that is healthy and meaningful, honors your history, and creates the future you want.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential care for people struggling with mental health disorders, including trauma disorders, as well as co-occurring substance abuse and eating disorders. Contact us for more information about our innovative program and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to true healing.

Image Source: Unsplash user Aidan Meyer