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Joining Together to Heal Our Trauma

Sociologist Kai Erikson’s definition of collective trauma is a blow or tearing, “to the basic tissues of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together and impairs the prevailing sense of community." Those are strong words and yet apt for our world, and specifically, our American culture, today. These last few years the world as we have known it has been slowing changing, the social fabric most of us have known has been slowing tearing apart, and few of us feel as safe as we did not long ago and most of us can also feel how our sense of community, both near and far, has been slowly fragmenting.

And this past summer has brought much of that to the forefront to our life here in Minnesota. Nationally the tragic events all seemed to happen in other places like San Bernadino, Baltimore, Boston, Charleston, and on and on. But with the killing of Philandro Castilo in St. Paul and the social unrest that continues to follow his death, that has changed. And with the upcoming national elections, with its blatant displays of nationalism, bullying, scapegoating and open hatred of groups by fellow Americans, most of us feel a growing sense of unease with the world around us and a consequent shrinking of the spaces and people that feel safe.

We often don’t think about it enough to put it into words, but when we do, we can feel that even here, in the upper Midwest, how our sense of community and the civil society we imagined we lived in is disappearing. And I say imagined, because one of the things that is tearing at the fabric of our secure attachment to this place and these people is that with social media and the mobile phone pictures and video’s, we are now unable to “imagine” it was even what we thought it was because many people of color, who have not had the luxury of “imaging” they live in a civil society, are showing us their reality of ongoing racial injustice.

So as the times have changed we need to change. We therapists have a central role to play in all of this if we are willing to step up to the challenge, and a challenge it is. Many of us who deal with trauma have worked with clients whose trauma is in the distant past. Others of us have dealt with clients whose trauma is fresh in their bodies. But now all of us are facing days when some of our clients are needing our help responding to their grief, fear, anger, despair, and trauma due to the latest mass killing, the latest terrorist act, the latest streamed video of a black man being killed, the latest “blow” to the world as they knew it. But many of us haven’t known how to help our clients because we haven’t known how to process these events for ourselves. We too are feeling torn, our emotions are raw, and our sense of the world and our attachment to it is slowly, and some times traumatically, being altered.

But we are not without any idea of what to do because collective trauma is nothing new and we can learn from other therapists and activists who have attended to and studied collective trauma. They have worked with people who have been traumatized by wars, acts of terrorism and natural disasters. And the one thing that they almost universally agree upon is that to respond to collective traumas it is best to have a community, or collective response.

But some things we are having to learn right now as we are experiencing the turmoil, the tearing and the trauma at the same time as our clients are and we are needing to attend to ourselves sometimes hours or minutes ahead of them, and sometimes even as we are sitting with them. Thankfully this is where we get to bring in the understanding of neuroplacticity and the new approaches to working with trauma and use them for ourselves as well as our clients.

And we therapists, we healers of different modalities, as a collective have a very unique place in treating this ongoing trauma of the world, of our country, and of our local culture as it is reorganizing itself into something we can yet not imagine. But to do that we must come together, support each other, learn from each other and help treat each other so we can become more deeply attuned therapists to this ongoing phenomenon and to become better citizens so that can respond to all these events rather then just react to them.

Join us for the next three months (at least) as we help each other stay connected, stay regulated, and stay ahead of our clients as we attend to the immense social anxiety and trauma that, most acutely, this election is bringing to the surface. The astonishing rise of anger and hate speech, the understandable desire of many people to seek the comfort of the strong invincible father figure, and the longing so many of us feel to return to the “imagined” days when things were simple and we were all safe, have left us at a place where this is a real and present danger for a mental health crisis that, regardless of the outcome of the elections, will continue to need our attention.