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Traumatized Societies May Have the Same Symptoms as Individuals

The implications of collective repetition compulsion.

Key points

  • We all know how individuals repeat negative patterns but have not recognized how socieities do, too.
  • We need to act and work with interdiscipline based on our own knowledge of traumatic experience and that of others.
  • The compulsive repeating of history’s worst patterns must be interrupted.

People have long said that history repeats, or rhymes, and always will. If we go on throwing up our hands in acceptance that our worst is baked-in, a forever part of human nature, we face certain catastrophic climate change with who knows how much destruction and injustice, how many wars, and infinite global-scale losses as it happens.

Might a culture-changing phenomenon be developed? Who could have thought that psychotherapy would transform the compulsion of so many traumatized individuals who otherwise would have continued to repeat their most destructive, retraumatizing patterns?

Psychotherapy’s wide acceptance has changed our culture. By analogy, might the actual transformation of so many human lives by psychotherapy offer hope that a related transformation might interrupt the role of collective trauma and transmitted trauma in compulsively repeating history’s negative patterns?

To ask this question is to interrogate the familiar and often painfully true claim, one that is widely accepted, that collectively groups will always inevitably assert power over others in any way that they can. To make the argument, I first establish its premises.

Trauma = Imposed Power

Trauma refers to an overwhelming event and, equally, to the serious threat of an overwhelming event. Thus, a traumatic threat is an event. Trauma is also used to refer to an individual’s or a group’s subjective experience of the event, while trauma in PTSD refers to a single individual's subjective experience of such an event that has traumatized them as determined by clinical measures. Thinking about how the many uses of trauma overlap, I’ve concluded that the essence of trauma is imposed power. A traumatic situation is one in which power over someone(s) or something is threatened or occurring. A greater power—a group, a force— threatens to or is overpowering or overwhelming a lesser power.

Collective Trauma as Structural, Political and Moral

Collective trauma complexly affects group cultures and institutions as well as their members. While some people plausibly question that individual trauma is inevitably bound up with structural, political, and moral issues, it’s impossible to maintain that collective trauma is not so entangled. Within the group composed of Americans, for example, the same event affects American sub-groups differently, such as Black and White, rich and poor, climate refugees and those unaffected by the climate event. Collective trauma is complicated in ways that individual trauma does not necessarily appear to be.

A collective trauma is always an important event. When, for example, the disrespectful or contemptuous attitude of a more powerful group toward a weaker group leads to traumatizing experiences like discrimination, genocide or colonization-occupation, and so on, the trauma comes to be at the core of the identity of the traumatized group. Some groups only come into existence because of a traumatic event. That event then defines that group’s identity. Mass shootings in American schools have led, for example, to the formation of groups of traumatized parents for support and to advocate a more restrictive policy toward gun ownership.

How Trauma Works

My hopeful analogy rests on common neuro-dynamics of both individual and collective trauma of many kinds in the face of major traumatic threats. Brains respond in split seconds, almost entirely involuntarily, to traumatic threats, the moment they happen, in one of three ways.

  • Fighting (“Fight”) or
  • Fleeing (“Flight”) or
  • Freezing/being immobilized (“Freeze”)

In the example of Ukrainians, one group is fighting, another is fleeing, and a third is trapped. There are rarely good options.

How Trauma Works After the Event Is Over

After the traumatic event, if we have been traumatized, we retain permanent memories of the experience. When the memories surface, if they trigger us, they are called symptoms. Symptoms show up in three ways:

  • Body sensations
  • Feelings
  • Thoughts

Often symptoms reflect the involuntary responses of fight, flight, or freeze. The Holocaust Is Over, We Must Rise from Its Ashes, is the title of a book by the former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, Avrum Burg. It conveys these three aspects of the collective trauma of the Jewish Israeli people—the despair felt by people in the ashes, the sensation of being immobilized or frozen in that state, and the thought, that people must rise and join the present.

Responses to Collective Trauma

When a group has been through or goes through a collective trauma, different sub-groups often differ greatly in the degree of traumatization and type of symptom. In some, for example, the intensity of memories fades and in others, it grows. Commonly, however, when reminded of the event, the memories of a collectively traumatized group may trigger its members again to fight, flee, or freeze, especially predictably if a “leader” wants to whip them up.

A common collective symptom is a composite of anxiety, distrust, and pervasive fear. To resolve conflicts in compromise, fairness, or sustainability rather than by exercising power over a group’s best mental functioning is required. The symptom impedes the functioning of the collective mind-brain. The mind-brain is likely then to impel the members of involved groups to manifest exaggerated, uncritical loyalty to the beleaguered identity group (perpetrating groups usually claim they are protecting themselves, not initiating), exaggerating universal perceptual biases present in most adults. One of many ways of protecting the identity of a group might be cherry-picking what is in the group’s narrative. A group practicing the many ways of intended self-protection can be said to be a flight from critical self-assessment.

The Key Repetitive Dynamic Summed Up

Memories of traumatized groups scar permanently. If the group again feels threatened, memories are triggered and impede functioning. This results in little or no change in responses, responses that may not fit a current situation. Moreover, the memories of the trauma continue to be transmitted across space and time, resulting in familiar if not predictable responses, also renewing the cycle of history’s repetition.

“Does traumatization and its transmission contribute to the repetition of history?” The answer is “Yes.”

Might Repetitive Cycles Be Sustainably Interrupted?

Might processing collective trauma play a role in resolving protracted conflicts and long unresolved problems? Does it make sense even to ask when there are such enormous power imbalances between parties in certain conflicts? When there is structural racism? When the powerful funders of so many politicians who determine policy directions lack any will to do other than pursue their own financial interests? When the less powerful in many of these situations have little to protect themselves? When legal norms, both national and international, often do not deter and are unenforced?

I maintain that collective traumatization processed collectively, under certain conditions, might make a crucial difference. Those conditions must start and continue with education and normalization of collective trauma, its symptoms, and its impact, in general, and in particular situations, all named as such. Those with public trust must catch triggering when it is happening, recognize it, process and manage it, on a large scale.

In addition to large protest rallies, we must scale up the numbers of participants in thoughtful discussions and hold some in public with the active participation of members of power structures. If the feedback loop between the arms, energy, fossil fuel, gun, industries, and politicians is not interrupted, no amount of processing is likely to bring transformation. Already today many developed processes for mediation, non-official negotiation, and conflict resolution are in use. But they rarely if ever include any of the conditions just named. They could expand to incorporate such changes.

How to Practice Processing Collective Trauma

We all have so much work to do. Whether you work privately or with others, or participate in civic affairs, you can educate yourself to identify and name collective traumas and the need for their processing. Authorize yourself to work with “opinion leaders” to understand and explain “collective trauma.” Think ahead and plan.

Do your own consciousness-raising about your personal experience of trauma and bring it to your teams or workgroups. Normalize this. This is also the way to gain and acknowledge a deep understanding (“strategic empathy”) of Others, starting with Yourself. It gives credibility. Don’t push dealing with collective trauma into clinical settings.

Be interdisciplinary: In your professional teams ask trauma clinicians to advise. Gain and manifest knowledge of the history of the conflicts of the population(s) you are working with. Why not ask historians to advise your team? You need to know and show knowledge and understanding of the interests of those in power when connecting with people in relevant power structures. Engage structural-level power holders in the arms, banking, finance, and more, industrial complexes. Support efforts to hold perpetrators and others accountable through justice-seeking: acknowledgment by the perpetrator, restitution, reparations.

None of this is easy. Do not work alone. Work with a partner when raising new, difficult matters in meetings. Otherwise, unless you managed to enlist the head of your organization or you are that person, you will be resisted if not scapegoated. One person’s request is far more likely to be dismissed whereas if two put it out, honest listening is more likely.


Searching for and Finding Meaning in Collective Trauma. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2009

Media Exposure to Collective Trauma, Mental Health, and Functioning: Does It Matter What You See? Clinical Psychological Science. 2019

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