How can we respond to collective trauma in the context of Ukraine’s conflict?
As a trauma informed coach and victim of a terrorist attack, I’m fascinated by how the nervous system reacts to trauma. I can empathise with folks who are dealing with the psychological impact of recent events because I understand all too well what its like to live with the troubling condition of post traumatic stress
I recall the morning I first heard about the invasion of Ukraine . I noticed a weight in my chest, a churning in my gut and a sense of dread and powerlessness in my body as a result of the shock. My nervous system began to retreat into a “ freeze “ response. I became consciously aware of my internal state which was that of feeling immobilised, paralysed, shutdown and dissociated
Over the next three days, I struggled to concentrate at work. Everything felt a little heavier; it was harder to concentrate while reading a book, and basic things demanded more effort. Life felt difficult and cumbersome, like wading through muck. Despite the fact that I was not directly involved in the conflict, I noted a dysregulation in my nervous system and witnessed the effects among my family, friends, business associates and larger community
Vicarious trauma is when you are personally affected by something that is happening to “someone else.” On a neurological level, we normally respond in one of five ways: fight, flight, freeze, flop, or fawn.
After years of studying the consequences of stress on the human psyche, one essential truth remains constant. Trauma is ALWAYS about the internal process that occurs in response to the incident, not the event itself. The reptilian brain is always the first to respond to trauma in our bodies. Before we have the opportunity to translate information into cognitive, reasoning thought, we will first experience it as bodily feelings and reactions. The hammering of your heart, the heaviness in your legs, the sinking sensation in the pit of your stomach, the clenching of your jaw, the stiffness and bracing in your physiology
The autonomic nervous system is responsible for all of these reactions.
Trauma will present itself in your body in a way that is as unique to you as it is to me. The human nervous system is a sophisticated and clever mechanism that is meant to keep you safe at all times. We know a lot, yet there’s still plenty more to learn. When it comes to comprehending the trauma response, it’s important to keep in mind the context and the fact that there will always be ambiguity.
So, how can we calm our collective stress response ? How can we strengthen our collective immunity to trauma so that we can remain resilient, responsive, and resourceful as a society instead of reactive, hostile, fractured, and polarised?
This method, in my opinion, has three key steps.
Step 1 : Awareness and comprehension of our own nervous system responses as well as the collective nervous system responses
As an EMDR therapist, I devote a significant amount of time to educating my clients how to “tune into” their nervous system as a first step toward emotional regulation and grounding.
The ability to physically, emotionally, and energetically resource yourself is paramount in returning to a position of internal safety, which is ESSENTIAL for maintaining equilibrium in the face of external chaos.
We can’t cure the world until we’ve healed ourselves
How you do this is to firstly become consciously aware of your internal state. Become mindful of your body’s interior sensations. How is your nervous system reacting to the current global insecurity? Do you have a feeling of being frozen? Do you feel energised? Do you feel as if you’ve been shut down? Are you ready to fight? Are you able to abide with these unpleasant feelings without succumbing?
Professor Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory is a good place to start.
The polyvagal ladder is an excellent metaphor for understanding how our nervous system reacts to stress.
We will feel safe, social, grounded, and resourceful when we reach the summit of the ladder. We may think clearly and respond from a place of curiosity, openness, and conscious awareness.
We will most likely proceed down the ladder into a “ activated “ condition if we learn that war has broken out in Eastern Europe. Anxiety, anger, irritability, control, rage, panic, guardedness, and defensiveness emerge.
When our systems get overworked and weary, we reach the bottom of the ladder, which is shutdown. We’ll probably feel numb, detached, tired, dejected, immobilised, trapped, paralysed, indifferent, and unmotivated.
The first step toward digesting rather than suppressing your trauma response is to become aware of your emotional condition by asking yourself, “Where am I on the ladder?”
Step 2 : Understanding the link between intergenerational trauma and collective trauma
The link between intergenerational trauma and collective trauma must be understood . This is why it is important to look backwards in order to move forwards.
When trauma is not fully processed, it is handed down from generation to generation silently, manifesting as unconscious bias and deep-seated grief as part of our hereditary legacy. Trauma is caused by fundamental, ethical transgressions into which we are born. That, according to some, is a part of our DNA.
Unhealed intergenerational trauma surges to the surface when collective trauma is triggered by a war, a global pandemic, or the climate crisis. We only need to look at the current conversations on social media to see how this is playing out.
Is the current conflict a result of the current war, or does it have a long history?
Is the current confrontation about Russia and Ukraine, or is it a story about East vs. West?
What is it that is causing you to be triggered?
Previous wars, genocides, or ancestral traumas?
Is there a visceral memory you’ve been carrying around that you’re experiencing now?
Step 3 : Taking personal responsibility for how we respond in the face of crises
Developing great capacity by becoming aware of how our nervous system is functioning in the present allows us to actively handle stress and create resilience.
At the same time, this enables us to look at others with compassion and acceptance.
Because we are all connected energetically, we must first take responsibility for our own healing before we can mindfully respond to communal trauma.
Taking responsibility for one’s own healing has a ripple effect that affects our families, communities, and society as a whole, transforming mindsets and affecting lasting change.