Our Collective Trauma
Updated: Aug 31
When thinking of trauma, we often picture one brief or drawn out event such as a car accident or a tour of duty that includes combat. As therapists, we focus on the individual and the specific pain they have experienced. In the fields of counseling and psychotherapy, we have come to understand that trauma can be a developmental event, such as chronic childhood neglect or abuse, and thus is known as chronic developmental trauma. And we are now coming to understand that the human community is coping with climate change anxiety as we face an uncertain future, our very existence under threat. At the same time, and also often a result of climate change, we see refugees fleeing war, famine, and persecution. Those situations can seem far away from our own lives but in our own backyards, sometimes literally, we are watching heartbreaking disasters resulting from hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and fires.
A few weeks ago, Vermont was hit by heavy rains and many towns were flooded. I felt lucky, high on my hill, especially because we did not lose power, which we often do. I wasn’t able to get in to work for a few days as the building was flooded and the roads were damaged. When I was able to get to work, the mountains of debris everywhere told the tragic story of homes ruined and possessions lost. People tried to focus on the positive, coming together to help clean out and clean up, grateful for very few lives lost. But, now, a few weeks later, exhaustion has set in and many businesses have announced that they are closing for good. The conversations are about how to rebuild differently with a focus on flood resilience. However, that will be prohibitively expensive for many so there is also the question of whether to rebuild. Many businesses were barely recovering from the impact of the pandemic and this is the final blow.
As a friend, a yoga teacher, and a clinician, I listened to story after story of loss and trauma, of people working sixteen hours days to get the roads open and our infrastructure running again. Watching the news, I heard even more stories, many heroic and inspiring but also overwhelming and unnerving. The air quality as people labored to clean up was compromised not only from the fires burning in Canada but also from the dangerous silt in the air as the water receded and things dried out. Our most basic necessity, oxygen, was poisoned.
Last week, I was feeling drained and very aware that my self care had been neglected as I struggled to just keep up with everything, to carry on. In my last session of the day, I listened to a harrowing story of being trapped in a car during flooding. My client abandoned the car and made it to their home, only to find it flooded. In the next few days, they also lost their job working for a business that had been flooded. This person is already living on the edge every day and that is what I find most disturbing about all of these traumatic events: It is always the most vulnerable who endure the greatest suffering. I held myself together until the session ended and then I broke down and cried, as much from witnessing the struggles of others as because I feel powerless to help. This is called vicarious trauma and many health care workers experience it.
Because I am privileged and fortunate to have supportive family members and friends and can take the time to get back to self care, I am okay. And it is truly heartwarming to see all the helpers. When people are able to help others, they do feel empowered and are less likely to feel hopeless. This is how we will survive our collective trauma. Those of us with more need to share with those who have less, both locally and globally. Compassion for ourselves and others can help us cope and even thrive on both a micro and a macro level.
-August 8, 2023
Click Here to see and hear Regina’s dharma talk on the social skills of yoga and how they can help us cope with collective trauma.