A reckoning with the deaths resulting from institutionalized racism, a resurgence of almost-daily gun violence and 3.1 million pandemic deaths worldwide, there has been trauma piled upon trauma upon trauma.
It turns out these collective traumas are taking a toll on all of us, according to Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science, medicine and mental health at the University of California, Irvine. Over the course of her 40-year career, Silver has studied the effects of trauma on individuals and on society as a collective whole.
The traumas of the past year – which are ongoing – have created a once-in-a-generation situation Silver refers to as “cascading collective traumas,” that continue to threaten our mental health in tragic ways.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: We have had one collective trauma on top of another over the past year. How does that affect our ability to deal with stress?
Roxane Cohen Silver: I call them “cascading” collective traumas. When there are more of them on top of each other, it makes things more stressful.
In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, some colleagues and I looked at how people in the Northeast had coped with the tragedy in light of other events, such as Hurricane Sandy and the 9/11 terror attacks and the Sandy Hook shooting. Those all occurred in the Northeast. Individuals in these communities had been indirectly, and in some cases directly, exposed to these events.
The more events people had experienced, the more likely they were to have reacted to the Boston Marathon bombing with a stress response. We found that with increased exposure there was increased distress. That was a hint to us that these events might build on one another.
CNN: What’s unique about our most recent collective traumas?
Silver: What is true about collective trauma is that many people experience them simultaneously. There are several characteristics of what we’re going through now that facilitate a perfect storm of stressors. These traumas are chronic events with an ambiguous endpoint. We do not know how bad things will get, nor when recovery can truly begin.
Individuals must grapple with intense direct exposure to cascading events — for example, personal illness or loss, social isolation, economic loss and violent policing — with varying and sometimes conflicting policies dictating public response.
These events have been broadcast in real time, as they unfolded, on traditional and social media, with individuals watching news coverage repeatedly and across multiple mediums, compounding their exposure.
CNN: Let’s talk about some of the specific traumas. The sheer number of deaths from the pandemic is enormous. How do people wrap their heads around the magnitude of this collective loss?
Silver: Some colleagues of mine and I began a study in March 2020 about Covid, as soon as the pandemic started. We had two waves of data collection in spring and fall of last year, and we’re conducting our next wave of data collection in the next few weeks.
When we collect the next round of data, we’ll ask these very questions: How have people managed to get through? What ways have they found to cope? I think it’s very normal and appropriate under the circumstances to have difficulty processing this level of tragedy.
I wrote an editorial for Science last summer titled, “Surviving the Trauma of Covid-19.” I talked about how we can survive this experience and how we can do things that are self-protective while not minimizing. We can step away from the news. We can reach out to loved ones, even if we can only connect with them virtually.
We can engage in self-care, take time for ourselves, go out into nature. None of this minimizes the tragedy and loss we have experienced, but human beings are resilient, and we are able to cope with things that we couldn’t have imagined we would get through.
CNN: Almost every day we hear about another shooting. What is the effect of this on us?
Silver: Is it the case that there have been more shootings, or is it the case that the media has focused on these? Either way, when it comes to gun violence, we’re talking about repeated collective trauma. I don’t have data on (the point at which) you become numb, and as a scientist I like to respond to data rather than anecdotes.
I think people have been stepping away from the news as the news is all bad, all the time. Go back to 2020 and look at what happened at when we were first learning about Covid-19. It was all bad news all the time, and it was escalating in intensity. It almost became too much to bear. I think people’s way of coping with that is to step away from the news. I think that’s probably psychologically beneficial to do.
Does that mean we’ve gotten numb to it? I’m not sure that’s the right adjective. I don’t know. I know it feels overwhelming. I know this is an issue that people experience in relation to constantly hearing about gun violence.
CNN: How can people cope with cascading collective trauma? Amid this constant barrage of violence and death, how can we take care of our own mental health?
Silver: One can keep very well informed without exposing oneself over and over again to graphic images of horror. Our research suggests the images play the biggest role in agitating stress. I think it’s important people monitor how much time they’re spending engaged in bad news and media reports of tragedy.
During 2020 I had a few different journalists contact me to ask me about what they call ‘doomscrolling.’ It is the case that many times people can lose track of the sense of time they’re spending engaged with media about bad news.
By the way, “graphic images” don’t have to be murder. It can be protest and police responding to that. It’s also important to note that not everybody responds to the same images in the same fashion. I’ve thought a lot about this. I suspect that for African Americans, watching the George Floyd murder could be especially horrifying.
CNN: Tragedy has become commonplace. What does the word “tragic” mean to you?
Silver: Everybody has had some sort of loss since 2020. Whether it was the death of a loved one, the disruption of dreams for how a young person was going to spend their senior year of high school, the cancelation of a wedding, or the loss of time together with one’s grandparent before they died, everybody has had a loss of some sort.
I think it’s important that we recognize that for each individual, that loss is important and meaningful. It’s not that another can’t have worse losses, but in some ways we don’t want to minimize the experience that any one person has had.
CNN: Can we feel hope during these times?
Silver: I feel optimism. Not just because of the vaccine. Because I’ve been studying this for a decade and I’ve been struck by the resilience of the human psyche. I also think it’s important to say, “We will get through this.” I don’t want to make the statement, “We’ll be stronger for it,” though some people may be feel stronger as a result of getting through these events, but I’d feel confident that we’ll get through. I think while it’s horrendous to be living through these times, we will get past them.