Collective Trauma….

The above video was captured as I decided to take my family out to my favorite sushi restaurant.  On this particular evening riots had organized in the Old Market as well as on 120th and Center street.  After speaking with some of the protesters, I had asked someone who had organized the protest.   Apparently, it was organized by a Native American Organization at UNO. In the last week, I’ve had time to absorb the fact that Trump is our next president.   While I tried to limit my social media interactions this week, avoiding political commentary hasn’t been as easy as I hoped.  There are a diversity of reactions both within and amongst the political parties. Everybody has a strong opinion about the results and whose fault it is…

…Today, during a get-together with friends at my house I learned of all the arguing that’s been going down on Facebook lately.  Everybody began describing how the election has actually caused a rifts in relationships with friends and family members.  I was surprised to hear all this since I’m not a big social media fan.  Out of an implicit respect for one another, we avoided the subject of how everyone voted.  Instead, we all concluded the importance of respecting the diversity that this country was built upon.

“In the liberal community, you hate this idea of creating people as a monolith. ‘Don’t look at Muslims as a monolith. … But everyone who voted for Trump is a monolith, is a racist.’ That hypocrisy is also real in our country…And so this is the fight that we wage against ourselves and each other because America is not natural. Natural is tribal. We’re fighting against thousands of years of human behavior and history to create something. That’s what’s exceptional about America. This ain’t easy. It’s an incredible thing.” – Jon Stewart

So having said this, I feel it is vital to put what has happened lately into a historical and cultural context….

“A splitting also occurs in collective dynamics of trauma, when one part of society suffers the atrocity and another part of society declares that it is time to move on, unwilling or unable to relate the traumatic story as its own. Often the dominant group in society, or the group with the most social power, will not include the traumatic story of an oppressed minority group into its collective ‘narrative’ of events, (Anderson, 2004, p. 21).”
Many of the protests in response to this election reflect unresolved cultural traumas woven throughout the fabric of our nation.
While, the DSM-5 manual discusses trauma from a medical, diagnostic viewpoint, it provides interesting commentary on the culturally relevant diagnostic considerations…
“The risk of onset and severity of PTSD may differ across cultural groups as a result of variation in the type of traumatic exposure…the impact on disorder severity of the meaning attributed to the traumatic event…the ongoing sociocultural context…and other cultural factors (e.g. acculturative stress in immigrants)…the level of severity and meaning of the distressing experiences should be assessed in relation to the norms of the individual’s cultural references groups, (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 278-750)”

Considerations such these point at the obvious fact that individuals can’t be extricated from the societies in which they live.   Sociocultural context is a key consideration in the understanding of traumas, since it tends to occur within a specific historical frame of reference.   This fact is especially critical when diagnosing and treating trauma-related disorders since the DSM-5 manual is “largely derived from a Euro-American epistemology, (Stamm, et al, 2004, p. 90).”   What follows is a quick and dirty overview of trauma as a collective and culturally-relevant concept.

What is Collective Trauma?

Personal Background….

As I may have mentioned in a previous posts, I am a student therapist who has been diagnosed with PTSD.  For this reason, I’ve have both a personal and professional interest in trauma. Additionally, as a biracial individual with a mother who grew up in the Philippines during WW2 , I’ve observed that trauma develops at a sociocultural level as well.  In a recent interview for a school assignment, she made the following comment about her early memories during the war:

“I don’t remember much of my early years. I was born in 1938 and the war started in 1941 by the time the war started I was three years old…. I don’t remember much about growing up in a normal sense, such as reading books and going to bed at night since we were refugees of the second world war and were living in caves alongside mountains, growing our own food…”

As a young child, I learned to respect the painful nature of these early painful memories.  For this reason, despite a burning interest in learning how these experiences influenced my mom, I know little about them.  The memories she has shared are simple and sweet, told through the eyes of a child.   She recalls her mother growing a vegetable garden for food.  Oftentimes the peanuts grown by my grandmother were their only source of protein.  She remembers “peeing on the peanuts,” since this helped them grow, while trying to avoid the lettuce.   To this day, she absolutely loves spam as a “delicacy” (in her mind).  When she was a kid, it was always the one thing left behind by the G.I’s that she longed for most.  She also remembers asking the American Soldiers for Chicklets and watching the dog fights in the night sky, unaware that the pretty lights and sounds meant someone was dying.

A Definition

It is against this personal backdrop, that I find myself examining the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Election.  Underneath all the strife, are unhealed wounds from America’s History. There’s a saying that I think best summarizes this history:

“Hurt People, Hurt People”

Alexander, et al, (2004), state that “cultural trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel they had been subjected to a horrendous event that marks their memories forever changing their future identity (p. 1).”  Stamm, et al, (2004) note that “trauma can affect the social fabric of a nation or culture during civil wars or in interactions or conflicts with other cultures or divergent subgroups of the same culture, (p. 90).”

Individual vs. Collective Traumas

“…by individual trauma I mean a blow to the psyche that breaks through one’s defenses so suddenly and with such brutal force that one cannot react to it effectively…by collective trauma…I mean a blow to the basic tissues of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together and impairs the prevailing sense of communality. The collective trauma works its way slowly and insidiously into the awareness of those who suffer from it…a gradual realization that the community no longer exists as an effective source of support and therefore an important part of the self has disappeared, (Alexander, et al, 2004, p. 4).”
Regardless of whether they we are talking about collective or individual traumas, the following symptoms can be observed:

Exposure to Traumatic Events

“The essential feature of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the development of characteristic symptoms following exposure to one or more traumatic events, (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 274).”

Intrusive Symptoms

Following the occurrence of these traumatic events intrusive symptoms can be observed when events or situations trigger memories of the original trauma.  The American Psychiatric Association, (2013), describes these intrusive symptoms as including distressing memories, dissociative reactions, and emotional flashbacks and “prolonged stress [upon] exposure to…cues that…resemble an aspect of the traumatic event, (p. 271).”

Persistent Avoidance of Stimuli Associated with Trauma

Regarding the diagnosis of PTSD in individuals, the DSM-5 notes that: “the individual commonly makes deliberate efforts to avoid thoughts, memories, feelings, or talking about the traumatic event…and…avoid activities, objects, situations, or people who arouse recollections of it, (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).”  An article titled “Collective Trauma: The nightmare of history” (Audergon, 2004), provides an interesting perspective of this symptom from a sociocultural perspective….

Collective traumas affect all segments of a society in different ways.  “One part suffers the atrocity and another part declares it is time to move on, (Auerdgon, 2004, p. 21)”
 “Often the dominant group….will not include the traumatic story of an oppressed minority group into its collective ‘narrative’, (Auerdgon, 2004, p. 21)”
This lack of accountability makes it impossible to heal these social wounds.   We become divided and cut off from valuable lessons and knowledge buried within these experiences, (Auerdgon, 2004, p. 21).
“one part of society ‘goes ahead’ while leaving those who suffered to bear the trauma of their own…bemoan[ing] the fact fact that survivors of a group….cannot seem to leave the story behind, (Auerdgon, 2004, p, 21).

Alterations in arousal, reactivity, mood, & cognition…

According to the DSM-5, alternations in cognition and mood can include “exaggerated negative expectations regarding important aspects of life applied to oneself, others, or the future…., (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p 275).”  While alterations in reactivity can include “heightened sensitivity to potential threats…[and reminders of a] traumatic experience. (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 275).”  How does this insight pertain to collective traumas?  Auerdgon, (2004) notes the following:

“While historical revisionism is often thought of in relation to extremist nationalist groups, we all contribute to it when we only become interested in a version of events that protects our interests or innocence.  The result is widespread misinformation and thinking of things….The nightmares of history don’t spontaneously erupt.  Past injustices & traumas remain in the fabric of our collective interactions and are ignited to create war…..(Auerdgon, 2004, pp. 21-23).”

Trauma as Historical Concept

As someone who has struggled with PTSD, I can tell that regarding the unresolved hurts of my past infected every area of my life until I faced them willingly, with a desire to heal. In a nutshell, you perpetuate what you deny & the only way out is through.  Interestingly, these traumas have a silver lining hidden buried beneath the hurt, that only those who have faced them can attest to.

“The manifestations of historical trauma include (a) communal feelings of familial and social disruption, (b) existential depression based on communal disruption, (c) confusion toward owning the ancestral pain accompanied by the temptation to adopt colonial values, (d) chronic existential grief and angst manifested in destructive behaviors, (e) daily reexperiencing of the colonial trauma through racism and stereotyping, and (f) lack of resolution of the existential, communal pain, (Stamm, 2004, pp. 93-94).”

Trauma as Cultural Concept

Culture consists of a shared system of meanings within society that define modes of expression and communication, (Chung & Bemak, 2002; Nazir, et al, 2009). It influences how we view the world around us and sets the normative standards for behavior (Chung & Bemak, 2002; Nazir, et al, 2009). As a form of “mental programming” (Chung & Bemak, 2002, p282), it defines our value systems and preferred ways of thinking and feeling.   Trauma is also cultural since it can “involve more than physical destruction of people, property, and landscapes….It attacks what constitutes culture of which there are some essential vulnerable elements: body/space practices, religion, history, language, state organization, and economies, (Stamm, et al, 2004, p. 95).  The widespread Native American Genocide in early U.S. history, is just one excellent example of this.

Trauma as a Sociocultural Process

There’s definitely more than a grain of truth the the notion that we perpetuate what we deny. Regarding my own personal traumas, until I let go of my own desire to avoid and deny these memories to myself, I was unable to fully heal.  This unresolved “crap”, infected every area of my life until I was welling to address it honestly with a goal of healing and moving forward.  As I have since discovered, buried deep within these traumatic memories are life lessons that have brought me clarity and a life worth living.  I firmly believe this is something that only those who have truly healed can understand.

This insight alao pertains to the unresolved collective traumas that underlie many of the protests in the recent 2016 presidential election.

When Do Cultural Traumas Emerge from Social Events?

In his book “Cultural Trauma, Collective Identity”, (Alexander, et al, 2004), notes that not all bad things that happen to us influence us traumatically.  “Trauma is not the result of a group experiencing pain.  it is the result of this acute discomfort entering into the core of the collectivity’s sense of its own identity…Collective actors decide to represent social pain as a fundamental threat to [our] sense of who [we] are, where [we] came from and where [we] want to go, (Alexander, et al, 2004, p. 10).”  What follows is a quick and dirty overview of the factors involve in the re-defining of events as collective & cultural traumas:

FACTOR ONE: Making Claims of Cultural Significance


“The gap between event and representation can be conceived as the ‘trauma process, (Alexander, et al, 2004, p. 10).”  In other words, the social process of trauma begins with a narrative that claims certain social events represent some fundamental injury that resulted in the destruction of for a collectivity of peoples.  An article by Silver & Updegraff, (2013), provides two interesting insights regarding the nature of collective and individual traumas.

FIRST, utilizing the 9/11/01 Terrorist Attacks, Silver & Updegraff (2013), describe distress reactions to traumatic experiences as a bit of a double edge sword:

“It is also clear that searching for meaning tends to be associated with distress. Of course, the causal direction of this relationship is impossible to clarify definitively. Rather than distress driving the search for meaning or the search for meaning driving distress, it is likely that there is a constant interplay between the two, (Silver & Updegraff, 2013, p. 14)”

NEXT, Silver & Updegraff, (2013) note that man’s search for meaning is what ultimately promotes healing, regardless of the specific meaning we attach to the experience:

“Regardless of the particular form of the explanation, it is thought that making some kind of sense out of a trauma or loss facilitates long-term adaptation. This process appears to take the form of restoring people’s sense of invulnerability and shutting down continued ruminations about the traumatic experience, (Silver & Updegraff, 2013, p. 14).”

FACTOR TWO:  Carrier Groups or “Meaning Makers”

Alexander, et al, (2004) describe carrier groups as the meaning makers in the sociocultural trauma process.  Carrier groups consists of anybody who has a place in the social structure who represents a specific sector or group of individuals.  Examples include religious leaders, politicians, mass media and even celebrities on occasion.  The key factors definitive of a carrier group are (1) an ability to communicate this claim effectively and (2) the power and prestige to be heard, (Alexander, et al, 2004).

FACTOR THREE:  Trauma as a Speech Act

Alexander, et al, (2004) also describes the trauma process as an act of speech and includes the following components:

The Speaker: Carrier Groups, (Alexander, et al, 2004, p. 11).”
The Audience: The general public who listens to this message (Alexander, et al, 2004).
The Situation: The historical, cultural, and institutional environment within which the speech act occurs, (Alexander, et al, 2004, p. 11).”  

FACTOR FOUR:  Narrative Development

In order to construct a narrative for the meaning underlying this traumatic event, a storytelling process develops in the speech act between carrier group and society.  This new social narrative encompasses four critical components:

“The nature of the pain…the nature of the victim…the relationship of trauma victims to wider audience…attribution of responsibility, (Alexander, et al, 2004, pp. 14-15).”

FACTOR FIVE: Social Institutions & Stratification Hierarchies

This narrative creates a story that is imbued with meaning.  It defines the nature of social suffering in a particular traumatic event of our culture’s history.  Social institutions including religion, science, government, and science together influence how this meaning-making process unfolds.

FIRSTLY, social institutions influence how the speech act unfolds. Who the carrier groups are and who the audience is and the specific meaning attached to the experience.  For example, religious institutions address the question of “why did God allow this to happen?”
SECONDLY, “The constraints imposed by instution[s] are mediated by an uneven distribution of resources, (Alexander, 2004, p. 15).” Those in power, with dominant social position, are able to create a social narrative that favors their perspective.  This can be seen in the typical U.S. History textbook.
“in 2000, reports surfaced in American media about a massacre of sever hundred of Korean civilians….the U.S. Army declared itself innocent: ‘We do not believe it is appropriate to issue an apology on the matter. [while] some of those civilian casualties, were at the hand of American soldier[s], that conclusion is very different from the allegation that was made that this was a massacre in the classic sense.’ (Alexander, et al, 2004, p. 17).”

FACTOR SIX:  Identity Revision

Collective traumas develop as a sociocultural process that defines the nature of an injury, who was the victim, who is the perpetrator, and what are the lasting consequences, (Alexander, et al, 2004).  Our collective identity is continually revised based on the meanings given current events.

“Identities are continually constructed and secured not only by facing the present and future but also by reconstructing the collectivity’s earlier life, (Alexander, et al, 2004, p. 18).”

In this respect, identity is a fluid concept that is experienced as a collective sense of who we are. It continually evolves based on how integrate current events into our “sense of self”.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed).  Washington, D.C.: Author.
Alexander, J. C., Eyerman, R., Giesen, B., Smelser, N. J., & Sztompka, P. (2004). Cultural trauma and collective identity. Univ of California Press.
Audergon, L. (2004). Collective trauma: The nightmare of history. Psychotherapy and Politics International2(1), 16-31.
Chung, R.C.Y. & Bemak, F. (2002) The relationship of culture and empathy in cross-cultural counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development. (80) pp154-158.
Nazir, A, Enz, S, Lim, M.Y., Aylett, R., & Cawsey A. (2009). Culture-personality based affective model. AI & Society. 24(3) pp 281-293.
Silver, R. C., & Updegraff, J. A. (2013). Searching for and finding meaning following personal and collective traumas.  Retrieved from:
Stamm, B.H., Stamm IV, H.E., Hudnall, A.C., & Higson-Smith, C. (2004).   Considering a theory of cultural trauma and loss.  Journal of Loss and Trauma, 9(89), 111.


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