Collective trauma, like individual trauma, refers to the ongoing attempt to make sense of and reconstruct a given negative experience. Unlike individual trauma, though, collective trauma can affect all members of a community, even those who cannot recall the events in question . As of January 2021, 400,000 Americans had died from the COVID-19 pandemic . Researchers have speculated that the COVID-19 pandemic may lead to an experience of collective trauma similar to that produced by the 1918 influenza pandemic or the American Civil War . The shared experience of COVID-19, however, is likely to induce varied trauma responses across the national and international population for three reasons. Firstly, individual biological and biographical factors can influence how, or whether, a negative event will traumatize that individual. Secondly, the extended timespan of the pandemic may allow some community members to psychologically adapt to its stressors. Thirdly, trauma responses tend to stem from the cultural or individual narrative attached to an event as much as from the bare facts of the event itself.
Both innate biological factors and the developmental stage of an individual can play a role in determining whether a distressing experience produces lasting trauma . A study of twin Vietnam War veterans indicates that genetics may account for a 13-14% variance in PTSD development . Dunn et al. found that children exposed to severe trauma before age 5 were almost 200% likelier than others to develop PTSD symptoms in adulthood . This data suggests that the experience of collective trauma from the COVID-19 pandemic will likely have the harshest effect on those with a genetic predisposition to trauma responses, those who have experienced past traumatic events, and young children, provided they are old enough to meaningfully grasp the negative events around them.
But as Carlson and Dalenberg note, suddenness is an essential aspect of most traumatizing events . The COVID-19 pandemic has been a prolonged event, which may affect the response of those dealing with its day-today stressors. According to Helson’s Adaptation-Level theory, psychological habituation resembles processes by which organisms habituate to sensory stimuli. Through this lens, an ongoing experience of stressful stimuli might cause those undergoing it to adapt and ultimately assume the same base level of psychological stress they lived with previously . However, this adaptability is not evenly distributed across populations. A survey of adaptation to stress during Spain’s COVID-19 outbreak indicated that those with lower happiness and worse mental health prior to the advent of the pandemic also adapted less easily. Respondents who did not adapt and showed higher continuous stress levels also displayed greater neuroticism and had lower self-esteem .
The experience of both collective and individual trauma is determined in part by the emotional valence attached to an event. In a study of athletes under stress, for instance, researchers found that participants’ appraisal and perception of roughly 50% of stressful encounters were influenced by their teammates: thus, the response of one’s community appears to play a significant role in the type and level of distress associated with experiences . Research by Georgiou et. al. suggests that pandemic-related conspiracy theories are widespread; this offers evidence that even individuals living under similar conditions during the pandemic may attach widely differing emotional significance to the events at hand .
The COVID-19 pandemic is a shared social experience. Yet variation within the population, as well as qualities particular to this pandemic—namely, its length and the proliferation of conspiracy-rooted attributions—make it difficult to predict the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to collective trauma in the U.S.
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