It’s not common that we, as a society, go through a collective trauma as we are now. The last one I can remember was 9/11, but even that experience was different. Though the world came crashing down around us on that fateful September morning, the event itself was over quickly. The healing journey was a long and arduous one, but we, as a collective society, took the first steps toward healing that very afternoon.
As we enter another week of shelter-in-place orders, we find that this collective trauma is different. This spread of the coronavirus, which has crawled its way across the globe, does not have any predetermined timeline of which we are aware. We do not know when the government will lift the orders, when we can once again hug our friends and family, head back into the office, or gather together in public.
Our Collective Trauma
It is the ambiguous nature of this collective trauma that makes this experience, unlike anything we’ve seen in recent history. The fact that we don’t yet know how this story will end leaves us in a state of suspended reality. As a psychotherapist and certified coach, I’ve spent the past several weeks diving into the psychology of this experience with my clients and have found myself struck by the diversity of emotional states and subjective experiences created as a result of the pandemic.
In the therapeutic journey of my clients during the crisis, I’ve witnessed a vacillation through the vast wealth of feelings common to the human experience. We’ve dealt with depression, anxiety, rage, and numbness, and everything in-between. I’ve had clients who have come to sessions filled with gratitude they still have a job. And others who are filled with gratitude for unexpected time with their kids due to a layoff. Some clients have been despondent about the state of society as a whole, while others have focused on the loss that their immediate community is facing.
Though we all have been flowing through the spectrum of human emotions over the past several weeks I’ve noticed certain themes emerging. Behaviorally and psychologically, people seem to be falling into three distinct response states.
Operating In Overdrive
There is a certain group of people who have been running on adrenaline for the past several weeks. Many of these people have found themselves in high-stress work scenarios as a direct result of the current health crisis. They may be healthcare providers on the front lines in hospitals, grocers standing at the check stands for the fourteen hours a day, finance executives working to save thousands of jobs, or restaurant owners hustling to keep their doors open.
People who are working in overdrive right now are experiencing their own unique Groundhog’s Day — doing the same thing day in and day out, with no break, no time off, and no chance to recover emotionally or physically. They are overworked, over-stressed, and exhausted, and there’s no end in sight for any of them.
An interesting aspect that this group is facing is the sense of disconnection they’re feeling from the rest of their community. While others are bored senseless, learning new hobbies, or posting creative videos on social media, this group doesn’t have the time, physical energy, or mental capacity for activities like that. They’re too busy hustling to get things done, working themselves to exhaustion to keep up with an internal or external demand right now. On top of the pressure they’re feeling from their work, they are also burdened with a sense of guilt. At times frustrated beyond tears after the tenth straight day of working, they may find themselves holding a bucket of conflicting emotions — on one hand feeling angry, resentful, and completely drained with no energy reserves, and on the other hand, feeling grateful for the work and guilty for wanting a break. It’s a no-win situation for people in this category, and all we can do for them is thank them, support them, and treat them with the respect and reverence they’ve earned.
Facing a Void
A second response state I’ve seen in the people I’ve worked with are those whose lives have come to a sudden standstill due to the coronavirus crisis. These people have been laid off, furloughed, or taken a major pay cut, which has left them with virtually nothing to do. People who are facing this reality are struggling, not only with fears about COVID-19 but with anxiety about their livelihood. They’re experiencing feelings like grief, numbness, and hopelessness as they sit in the uncertainty about their future.
John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath holds powerful symbolism of what people in this category are going through. The crisis we are facing has turned into a metaphorical dust bowl for them that has siphoned off things like hope, purpose, and opportunity, at least temporarily. The proverbial American Dream they might have leaned on is no longer, at least not right now. These people are asking themselves life-changing questions like Will I be able to find a job again? What happens if I lose my house? How will I get through this?
During difficult times, a sense of purpose can be the beacon of hope that people cling to. In this situation, with society essentially shut down for who knows how long, that sense of purpose is paused for the duration of this crisis. Feelings of empowerment, of autonomy, of choice, are all lost. The people facing this void have been unwillingly assigned the difficult task of finding hope and purpose in a barren landscape. They need love, support, and a safe space to go through the multitude of emotions anybody would feel if in their shoes.
Finding Opportunity In the Abyss
A third response state is those people who are making the most of these unusual circumstances. I’ve found that these people have gained a sense of clarity or meaning about life through the crisis. They’ve taken up hobbies they’ve always been interested in, have started cooking and baking, and are taking advantage of the classes that are now online. This group has figured out how to keep themselves engaged in life, while holed up at home.
People who are having this response to the crisis are feeling some of the same feelings the rest of us are feeling — depression, anger, disbelief. But, they have found a way to pivot their attention to focus on the positive. They are able to look at this time when life is on pause as an opportunity to slow down, re-adjust their priorities, and devote their energy to things that leave them feeling uplifted and inspired.
The Common Human Experience of a Collective Trauma
We are one group of people going through this collective trauma together. Of the three responses states above, it should be noted that none of them is right and none of them is wrong. Each state represents a group of people who are doing their best to get through a terribly difficult situation.
In a perfect world, we would flow between all three states to ensure we’re allowing our souls and our psyches to express the full range of the human experience. But this is not a perfect world and we are all just doing the best we can. So for you, the reader who may be studying this article trying to figure out the “right” way to be right now, I offer you this… be who you are and where you are right now. Allow yourself to go through this process in a way that is true to your feelings and true to your values. Take care of yourself, but don’t let others pressure you to change your state if you’re not ready to be different. And if you need extra support, please reach out to a therapist or coach for help. I’ve been in constant contact with my colleagues throughout this crisis — we’re an army of helpers and we’re ready to mobilize. Please call us if you need to.
Originally Published On Medium (May 5th, 2020)