How Collective Trauma Can Bond Groups of People Together

Collective trauma refers to the emotional harm caused by an event that impacts a group of people. From these shared experiences, they can form a strong bond.

By Emilie Le Beau LucchesiJul 1, 2024 8:00 AM
People sitting in a circle during group therapy
(Credit: New Africa/Shutterstock)


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The morning of January 12, 1888 was surprisingly warm in The Great Plains. The mercury rose above the freezing mark, melted ice dripped from roofs, and children left their heavy coats at home on their way to school. Across the region, people used the warm day to run errands or work outside.

Thousands of people were caught unaware when a fierce blizzard suddenly transpired. Temperatures plummeted as low as negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and intense snow blinded those stranded outside. Hundreds of people died, including many children.

The historic storm, later called The Schoolhouse Blizzard, was a collective trauma in which communities across the region were stunned by the storm and left to grieve the loss of human and animal life. It was the type of collective trauma that scientists know now can lead to special bonds among survivors.  

Trauma and Collective Trauma

Trauma is based on an individual’s perception, and what one person finds traumatic might not be disturbing to another person, says Shanti Farrington, the co-author of The Psychology of Trauma, and a principal academic at Bournemouth University in England.

“[Trauma is] anything or any event that happens to any individual that is unwanted or unexpected,” Farrington says. “It is an experience that can be stressful, frightening, and often quite difficult for the individual to cope or they may feel out of control.”  

A collective trauma is a crisis that happens to not just one person but an entire community. Collective traumas can stem from natural disasters such as The Schoolhouse Blizzard, the 2011 tsunami in Japan, Hurricane Katrina, or the 2020 Australian wildfires.

Collective traumas can also occur after violent events (such as mass shootings), mechanical disasters (like airplane crashes), or the mass spread of an infectious disease (like COVID-19).

Collective trauma is more than a historical event. These traumas are often born of tragedies that can impact or permanently change a community.

Collective Emotions Can Arise

After a collective trauma occurs, the emotions involved tend to be defined retroactively. The actual event might happen quickly (like a tsunami hitting a coastal area), and people don’t have time to consider their emotions. Or the event might require an immediate reaction. People fleeing wildfires or hurricanes, for example, may be too preoccupied to consider their own emotional response.

Shared emotions from collective trauma can be beneficial. People might feel they are freer to express their emotions to others who went through the same ordeal. But collective emotions can also create a narrow definition as to how people should respond to a trauma, and it can be based on stigma against emotional expression. 

Read More: Why Are Emotions Contagious?

Coping with Trauma  

There are many myths surrounding how people should respond to trauma, says Alison Woodward, co-author of The Psychology of Trauma and a senior lecturer at Bournemouth University in England.

“People tend to hide their symptoms to avoid comments like, ‘just get on with it’ or to avoid feeling/being called ‘weak.’ Culture can play a huge part in this in terms of what is acceptable or not in the society/culture around us,” Woodward says.

Not working through a traumatic experience means stress can manifest psychologically through responses like anxiety attacks, flashbacks, or nightmares. A person can also experience a somatic response with symptoms like pain or fatigue.

“Research shows the longer we hide the feelings, the longer it takes to manage them and recover, so it is detrimental to encourage people to ‘get over it’ without seeking support to understand and manage their symptoms,” Woodward says.

Read More: The Traumatic Loss of a Loved One Is Like Experiencing a Brain Injury

Bonding Over Trauma

When a person doesn’t hide their feelings about a traumatic event, they might find themselves bonding with others who also went through the same ordeal. It is good to note however, that bonding over collective trauma is distinct from trauma bonding.

Expressing the same emotions or providing support in the aftermath of a tragedy can bring people closer together. But scientists also see such bonding as part of a neurological process. 

Making Sense of Tragedy

From early on in life, Woodward says people learn to sync themselves with others. “Our brains are very good at locating and regulating (or not) with another’s brain,” Woodward says.  “Early in life, this is necessary because, as babies, we learn to regulate by being responded to by our caregivers.” 

As babies grow, they learn to regulate on their own, which becomes the norm in adulthood. But when traumas occur, the brain may not know how to make sense of what just happened. “When traumas occur, regulation can be particularly difficult,” Woodward says. “Therefore, we look to others.”

Through this regulation, people who survive collective trauma can bond. And although these bonds are helpful, there are situations in which more help may be needed. 

Read More: How Do Different Emotions Manifest In The Body?

How to Heal from Trauma

People respond to traumatic events in different ways, and Woodward says there isn’t a single recommendation as to when someone should seek professional help. But, a person may want to reach out for assistance if they are experiencing symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, or anxiety for more than one month. A person should also consider seeking help if they find their symptoms are getting worse, not better, as time passes.

Seeking professional help may be needed to help the brain understand that the threat has passed and everyday life can resume again. “Any support is important to normalize and validate our response after trauma and recognize that the person is okay now, that they have tools to calm their nervous system and regulate,” Woodward says.

Read More: How to Improve Your Mental Health

Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

Emilie Lucchesi has written for some of the country's largest newspapers, including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and an MA from DePaul University. She also holds a Ph.D. in communication from the University of Illinois-Chicago with an emphasis on media framing, message construction and stigma communication. Emilie has authored three nonfiction books. Her third, "A Light in the Dark: Surviving More Than Ted Bundy," releases October 3, 2023 from Chicago Review Press and is co-authored with survivor Kathy Kleiner Rubin. Visit her website here: http://emilie-lucchesi.com/.

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