Community and Public Service

The Upside of Collective Trauma

Coping? Maybe. But at What Cost?

However we choose to make sense of the global Coronavirus pandemic (or not as the case may be) our responses may well demonstrate a widely misunderstood phenomenon, namely social trauma. The chronic stress caused by uncertainty has increased significantly over the past decades. Living with chronic stress means being in a state of perpetual fear. Just imagine you’re running from a wild beast hell-bent on eating you. How long could you sustain the state of flight before the effort wears you out? This is what it means to be chronically stressed! 

“Post-industrial social structures have not worked in harmony with our body’s biological systems And our relational bonds”

To survive in such circumstances we have adapted and developed out of necessity what, in evolutionary terms, is a relatively new set of superficial coping mechanisms. Post-industrial social structures have not worked in harmony with our body’s biological systems and our relational bonds. It’s as if society has dived headlong into a supposedly modern world and left behind any sense of its fundamental relationship with nature.

This has come at great cost. We are disassociating from our body’s natural capacity to deal with the emotional ups and downs of life. The chaos and panic we witness now are simply a high-functioning, traumatised society trying to make collective sense of an existential threat. How is it even possible that a tiny virus can bring the economies of the most powerful nations on earth to a near halt? No wonder we feel deeply disorientated and helpless.

“the virus is spread through human contact, so is the cure”

However traumatic they may be, events on this scale like warfare, famine and earthquakes, can also bring us closer together in unexpected ways. Our sense of proximity is altered because we come to understand that “people like us” have suffered and died. We sense it could affect any of us and we’re suddenly aware that we are, one way or another, collectively dealing with a threat that is both far away and very near. 

In the case of Coronavirus, it’s a threat that is materially affecting our way of life because it coincides with a global economic crisis. This coupled with the fact that the virus is spread through human contact also makes it a societal challenge as well as a medical one. These are the ingredients of the social trauma soup and we’re all drinking it.

We’ve Gone Online but Will We Stay There After the Crisis? 

So with this unprecedented set of extraordinary circumstances can there really be an upside? One trend accelerated by the crisis and likely to sustain beyond it is the massive shift to online activity. For a start, there is a surge of social media activity with shares in the teleconferencing service Zoom rising over 500% in the immediate aftermath of governments “locking down” citizens with social distancing measures. 

Churches, schools, community groups, corporations and organisations of all kinds have all launched into the digisphere in an effort to establish new relationships with their customer base. TV programmes are being broadcast from empty studios or presenters’ homes with guests connecting in over the internet; strange times indeed.

People are coming to terms with the idea of working from home (where practicable) and teachers, students and parents are also having to find new ways to keep calm and carry on with the task of educating tomorrow’s makers. Most interesting in all this is the newfound appetite to do online what was only recently considered impossible outside the familiar and traditional bricks and mortar spaces; our shops, our schools, our places of worship, our factories.

Maybe now is also a good time to pause and reflect on two meaningful questions:

  1. What else could we be doing differently?
  2. What did we consider implausible that is now bristling with possibilities?


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