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What 9/11 Teaches Us about Collective Trauma as a Nation

Seventeen years ago, the world watched the events unfold on Sept. 11, 2001, causing the deaths of thousands and a reverberation of effects throughout our nation. Since then, the research emerging from the 9/11 attacks that have taught us a lot about evacuation protocols, lines of communication, and security. As a therapist, the psychological effects and significance are what fascinates me in learning about how to care for trauma survivors, symptoms of collective and situational trauma, as well as how resilience can emerge as a form of healing. Being in the proximity of both the 9/11 attacks and the Boston Marathon bombing, as well as working closely with refugees, who have, for the most part, came from constant states of war and fear, collective trauma today is no stranger to me.

My Story

As a native New Yorker, this day has always been etched into my life and mind. I remember my grandfather being called to urgently pick me up from school in the middle of the day and head home immediately. The debris and dust filled the air as people on the streets were yelling and crying. Even as I got home, our living room window was smoky as more dust and debris flew by as the television continually covered the event as it unfolded in the background. Similarly, thousands of individuals have never forgotten the horror, the pain and the grief that came with this day. Thousands of these individuals were also able to recall their narrative in where they were, what they were doing, and who they were with when this happened. Even as seventeen years have passed, it is phenomenal to consider that this incident is still so ingrained in our nation’s recent history and our minds.

What is Collective Trauma?

Collective Trauma happens to large groups of people and can be transmitted down generations and across communities. Examples such as war, genocide, slavery, terrorism and natural disasters can cause collective trauma. The effects of collective trauma are specifically – fear, rage, depression, denial, survivor guilt, internalized oppression, and physical responses in the brain and body that can lead to chronic illness and disease and a sense of disconnection or detachment.

This can also be further defined as historical, ancestral, or cultural. It reflects that trauma is not just at the level of the individual, it’s at the level of culture — that culture has been damaged among practices, values, and beliefs. You may wonder: how it is possible for people to carry the weight of a trauma narrative with them time after time? Some studies show that it can be the amount of media coverage and exposure on the event that can cause acute stress symptoms and possibly even maintain them if care is not sought out. Those who watched four to seven hours of television were four times more likely to show the symptoms of PTSD. Systemically, international relations are also affected by collective and historical trauma as nations and peoples who carry the weight of their own historical trauma as they wage war against each other. As our nation and the culture around us becomes increasingly diverse, it is important to know and care for those who are coming from a narrative and history of collective trauma.

Coping & Resilience

As with our general emotions and distress, when it is unacknowledged, it can leave us in a disconnected state with our mind and bodies. Unacknowledged historical trauma can also have those effects. Seek support and other community members who have that shared experience as well. Collective resilience can be an antidote to collective grief. Just as the tragedy severs ties and disrupts society and groups of people, it is there that resilience and solidarity begin to grow. In beginning the process of healing collective trauma, it involves these four stages – confronting it, understanding it, releasing the paint of it, and transcending it. Instead of being stuck with behaviors and thoughts generated by anger or sadness, resilience studies and groups show that identifying the effects of trauma can help us think of ways to not feel as angry or sad, and instead connect with others who feel the same way.

Through this process, regardless of ethnicity and race, we all begin to create a better world, meaning and purpose for ourselves. Embracing and being of service for others, creating a memorial, speaking out and sharing your own story and experience, learning and listening to our bodies and how we hold collective memory in many areas of our lives. These may seem like small steps and gestures when faced with the enormity of collective trauma. But for those who are working toward healing, they are the beginnings of a new tapestry of respect, understanding, and hope. If you or a loved one has experienced collective trauma of any kind, please do not hesitate to reach out and explore more of the healing process together.

Written by therapist Tina Choi

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