How community trauma impacts individual coping
The year 2020 has certainly been a doozy to say the least. We have all started looking at each new month with a large sense of anxiety and anticipation, waiting to see what level of chaos and danger it may bring. The experiences of this year with so much pain, fear and unrest coming wave after wave are hopefully a pattern that only happens once in a lifetime. For many people, life as we know it came to a screeching halt this year and the shortcomings within our society to address crisis situations were laid bare, and we have felt exposed, overwhelmed and unprepared. Even if you were fortunate enough to not have your life completely uprooted, the tension and stress in the world today may still be affecting you. You may be feeling the effects of community stress.
What Is Community Stress?
Community stress is a collective experience of going through the similar hardships, crises, or experiences at the same time, even if not everyone is affected in exactly the same way. Community stress can also be defined as “an interaction between neighborhood context factors, community stressors, and community resources.” This is especially relevant when a community or society may not be equipped to handle the situations in a timely manner. The stressors felt in the community can be both physical and psychological.
Psychological stressors can include things like community violence, family turmoil, economic issues, discrimination, political conflicts and the resulting fear and stress that go along with these issues. For us in 2020 that has included a worldwide health pandemic, isolation from quarantine, loss of employment/income/stability/routines, significant political unrest, immense losses, unjust killings, racial inequalities, and community anger and tensions. Each of these are presently in a different stage of crisis which further taxes our emotional reserves and abilities to cope.
How community stress develops into collective trauma
On the more extreme end of the scale, community stress can turn into community or collective trauma. Collective trauma is how a major event not only impacts the historical context and facts of an event but the shared meaning and memory of the event on society. It outlasts the survivors of a trauma and changes the way we as a society remember, process and communicate about the events. It can spark change, lead to conflict over differences in perception, and reshape a society in short and long terms.
This includes trauma from violence, disaster, or otherwise that affects or is experienced by a large number of people at the same time. This has historically been limited to events occurring in the same geographical location; however, these geographical areas of impact have dramatically expanded though with the increased access to news outlets & the availability of social media. This is evidenced by how the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd & so many others have been viewed and felt around the country (and the world), from the ease of access to photos and videos of these terrible and tragic events as well as being able to witness the aftermath of these events in communities. We can see and hear each other’s pain in ways we could never have before. What we do with that pain though, that is what makes us or breaks us as a community.
Remember, people can experience the same event and not perceive it as in the same way. Some will witness or experience an event and not see it as traumatic or significant, while other people will find it catastrophic and life altering. Trauma and stress are subjective experiences, built off of our past histories, social supports, and internal resources; so, try to be kind to yourself and others if these experiences of struggling vary.
Everyone has different access to resources and abilities to cope and manage stress and trauma. Quite simply, we all view things through the lens of our own experiences. If you have never felt discrimination you will likely not fully understand the fear and anger associated with these last few week’s events; however, that does not mean that you are not impacted by the community stress and trauma or the fear and anger that has accompanied it. You can also give kindness and support to others even if you don’t understand what they are feeling or how they are hurting. You also don’t need validation from an external source to justify your feelings or reactions.
How Does Community Stress Affect Me?
Even if your life hasn’t drastically changed in the past months, you may still be feeling the effects of community stress and not realize it. You might just describe feeling tension “in the air.”
Here are some other indicators that you may be feeling the effects of community stress
- Lack of energy
- Wanting to isolate/withdraw
- Feeling too fatigued to talk with others about current events
- Being more irritable than normal/shorter fuse
- Feeling hopeless
- Feeling fearful for your future, economic or otherwise
- Feeling fearful about your own safety or the safety of loved ones
- Feeling cynical about people
- Assuming the worst
- Inability to focus/low threshold for frustration
- Sleeping/eating changes
Stress for prolonged periods of time can lead to increased levels of cortisol (your body’s stress chemical) in your system. This can make you feel especially depleted if you are continually experiencing a fight or flight response, which may feel like you are running on fumes in survival mode. When you’re in such an exhausted state, it may feel near impossible to make decisions and calm down. There is actually a physical reason for this. When you are in a stressed state, your ability to engage in higher-order thinking decreases, because your body is focused on its more basic functions to preserve itself. This means that your body is trying to force you to slow down, pay attention, and take care of your basic needs. This may mean that you may need to readjust your to-do lists for the day and engage in some much-needed rest and self–care.
What Can I Do to Cope with Community Stress?
Things are really hard right now, for a lot of people. Fear, death, and violence are in our communities and all over the media. It can feel near impossible to get a breather and like nothing you do matters. Though it is not your responsibility to take on the weight of the world, there are little things you can do to take care of yourself so you will be able to function the way that you want to (and have more emotional resources to help the people/causes that you want to). Regardless of the level of community stress you are experiencing there are things you can do to help yourself through this.
The following tips can help ease some of your symptoms of community stress and compound trauma
- Focus your time and energy on the people who are helping
- Distance yourself physically and emotionally from toxic people
- Express anger in healthy ways (venting with friends, exercising, creating art, practicing yoga/mindfulness, getting involved in outreach, finding ways to be a voice for causes that are important for you)
- Pay attention to your body—are you depleted or in survival mode? If so, rest and reboot!
- Practice self-acceptance; yes, even of the more uncomfortable emotions like rage and fear. These emotions are not necessarily bad. They are a sign that there is something wrong in your world that may need fixed. Learn to listen to your internal sensors rather than judge yourself for them
- Allow yourself to take a day (or more) of rest
- Prioritize sleeping and eating well
- Speak your truth, being genuine to yourself can decrease a lot of stress and tension
- Try not to isolate but pick the people and social situations that help build you rather than those that drain you
- Don’t take responsibility for things that aren’t yours (e.g., other people’s emotions/behaviors)
- Focus on what you CAN control and DO, rather than what makes you feel helpless. If you are struggling with variances in privilege and discrimination explore how you can help the voices of those struggling to be heard in effective ways
- Take a social media hiatus. It is important to stay up to date on the events in this world but we can get overloaded easily. Set timers for yourself and avoid “checking in” on social media during times of rest or relaxation. No Social Media before bed!
- Focus on your own values and align yourself with people who share them. Find your tribe to thrive!
- Disengage from the news for a period of time/set limits on your news consumption
- Continue to do activities that have brought you joy in the past
- Spend time in nature
- Create something (music, writing, art, a video, a blog) to express yourself
The world can seem like an especially scary place right now. While the above list is a great place to start to try to manage your experience of community stress/trauma–healing is a process. One that takes a very long time. There is no shame in accessing extra help along that journey. Counseling can be a safe place to explore your thoughts, fears, and experiences in a judgement free zone. Make an appointment with a Angelus today to help work through some of the overwhelming feelings and thoughts that go along with the experience of community stress and trauma. We are here for you through this time of crisis.
Blog Credit: Natalie Drozda, LPC, PhD & Nessa L Wilson, LCSW