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We can get beyond COVID’s legacy of collective trauma

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Joyce Johnson-Albert looks on as she receives an antibody infusion for COVID-19 in a trauma room at Upper Tanana Health Center on Sept. 22, 2021, in Tok, Alaska. She was optimistic but also realistic: “I just hope the next few days I’ll be getting a little better than now. It’s just hard to say. You can go either way.”

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been reported in terms of fatalities, hospitalizations, infections and lingering ailments. The U.S. has lost more than a million lives. The global count is at 6.7 million. Experts say that these numbers are understated. But there is more: History reveals that mass traumatic events have long-lasting impacts. Collective trauma is experienced by people who share events and geography, such as wars and epidemics. 

COVID is unique in that it brought about shared global suffering, exempting no one from exposure. Three realities stand out: 

First, COVID is an “invisible” enemy, forcing isolation and weariness. Anyone might carry the virus, forcing people to think about avoidance and fostering mass paranoia.

Second, in previous global crises, people bonded together to reinvigorate their shared strength. COVID, by policy and personal choice, forbid us to band together, making the experience lonely and terrifying for some. We struggled with dualities: togetherness and separateness, security and freedom, trust and risk, well-being and safety.

Third, even those who say “I’m fine” know that the world is not — the pandemic has wreaked havoc. Here are a few facts:    

The list goes on. Although no scientific model has been released, it seems that more people will succumb to COVID’s collateral damage than from the virus itself. This equates to a physical and mental health calamity that rivals any in history.  

The chilling truth is we are traumatized. The effects of trauma include stress, burnout, fear, isolation, anxiety, erosion of trust, intimacy problems, societal disillusionment and social disassociation. This collective trauma has palpable consequences, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), anaclitic depression, relationship ambivalence, and dysregulation.

COVID-19 anxiety is tangible. With a life-threatening virus afoot for two-and-a-half years, the ensuing hyper-vigilance has strained even the most psychologically adjusted. GAD is a condition of excessive worry. It leads to persistent apprehension, restlessness, fatigue, trouble concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, insomnia and chronic weakening of the immune system. GAD is mainly treated by medication and therapy, but this anxiety can be chronic.

According to research, anxiety is an “existential emotion” because it is produced by threats to our existence that are hard to identify. Elevated anxiety and stress over long periods of time lead to more serious complications, such as depression and compromised immune systems.

Some trauma-inducing life events blindside us, leaving no time to prepare or reply. The 9/11 attacks, for example, happened suddenly. But COVID crept up on us and hasn’t gone entirely. Anxiety is a predictable response, an innate and necessary defense mechanism for survival.  

Since March 2020, the collateral damage of “anaclitic depression” has produced unnerving consequences. Anaclitic depression “involves excessive interpersonal concerns, including feelings of loneliness, weakness, helplessness and abandonment fears.” The loss of connection is wide and varied, ranging from family to colleagues to friends and neighbors. It is particularly egregious for children, who may have lost connection with every friend they have ever known. We all experienced this deep fear of being disconnected from those we most adore during COVID, but especially adolescents and the elderly. This has brought about uncertainty that filters down to our relationships, be it spouse, colleagues or friends, causing relationship ambivalence — feeling stuck, frozen, trapped or dysregulated.  

Where do we go from here? Thankfully, there is sound advice. After extensive interventions with military veterans, the notion of “post-traumatic growth” was invented. It is the “positive change that the individual experiences as a result of the struggle with a traumatic event.” Primary outcomes of post-traumatic growth are a changed sense of oneself; a changed philosophy of life; and a changed sense of relationships with others.

People who heal and grow need to feel the distress of the traumatic situation they have undergone. There are two truths between trauma and growth. One is a cliché (but true): that it is from the depth of our suffering that our growth can emerge. The other is reality, that not everyone who is traumatized experiences growth.

In ancient mythology, the first step of exorcizing the possessed is to “name the demon.” By identifying the demon, its power over us is reduced. Even once named, demons can either drag you into a quagmire or enable you to start anew. To better approach your career or relationships, how you think about yourself and your life is critical. You can decide if you will allow COVID trauma to enable or disable you — and then take action. 

We have an opportunity to reflect on how COVID has consumed our lives. Ideally, it serves as a giant reset button that enables us to better ourselves. In the words of the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who survived four Nazi concentration camps: “Live as if you were living a second time, and as though you had acted wrongly the first time.”

First, recognize and acknowledge the stress that has accumulated into trauma. It is a process of identifying social, cognitive and emotional repercussions. Acceptance follows, genuinely building on recognition but removing blame. To accept something is to take it as a fact that requires action but doesn’t yoke one with the guilt of bringing it about. We can be our own worst enemy, to be sure, but no one chose COVID. 

What, exactly, about your best self was compromised during the pandemic? It may not be obvious but tentativeness, risk-adversity, indolence, ennui and lack of forward thinking are not always immediately obvious. That’s why you dive deeper within. We nurture our bodies after a physical trauma, so why not nurture ourselves after a mental ordeal?  

COVID wore us all down, eroding critical social relationships and personal aspirations. We had curfews. We avoided friends and family. We huddled in home offices. We watched loved ones struggle. Tally up the mental, psychological, physical, social, occupational and familial experiences and they equal pervasive, collective trauma. The healing need not be a solitary journey. For collective healing, we must destigmatize trauma in society, and employers must acknowledge it and assist in the healing.

Organizations should set in place the patience and policy needed to address it. An outstanding performer three years ago may have lost their edge, but human beings adapt quickly. Just as we adjusted to masking and quarantines, we will adapt to surviving and striving to be our better selves in a changed world. It will take time, but we’ll arrive — safe, sound and sharper. 

James R. Bailey, Ph.D., is a professor of leadership development at the George Washington University School of Business and a fellow in the Centre for Management Development at London Business School.

Scheherazade Rehman, Ph.D., is the director of the European Union Research Center, a professor of international finance/business, and a professor of international affairs at the George Washington University.

Anthony Silard, Ph.D., is an associate professor of leadership and director of the Center for Sustainable Leadership at Luiss Business School in Rome and the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Leadership at the Monterrey Institute of Technology. He also is CEO of the Global Leadership Institute and president of the Center for Social Leadership.

Tags Anxiety Burnout COVID isolation COVID-19 pandemic

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