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How to Cope in Times of Collective Stress

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Today, almost everyone has faced collective trauma. Many people continue to face this collective or mass trauma. From the COVID-19 pandemic and economic concerns to civil and racial unrest and the war in Ukraine, collective trauma is continuing across not only the United States but the globe. And in these times of mass trauma, maladaptive coping skills become more evident to many.

Collective trauma is defined as the psychological reactions to a traumatic event that affect an entire society. It is not confined to an individual’s reaction to the event alone, but the entire society’s response. This includes members of society who were directly impacted by the mass trauma as well as those who weren’t witnesses to it but heard, read, and watched news stories about it. The way that a mass trauma is remembered can vary from one person to the next depending on their exact exposure to it. 

The onset of COVID-19 was the first of the collective traumas many Americans began to experience. This pandemic changed the way we lived completely; from not being able to go to the grocery store, church, –even work, many people became stressed out and worried about what the future may hold. Add to that the civil unrest, economic distress, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the collective stress and trauma continue. 

When one major trauma happens after the next, as illustrated above, this is often referred to as cascading trauma. This means that there is one mass trauma, for example, the COVID-19 pandemic, almost immediately followed by another trauma, such as the racial unrest and reports of black Americans being beaten ferociously with no apparent causes. Cascading trauma is not only when these events happen one after the next, but also when the individuals experiencing these mass traumas are unable to heal from one trauma before they are beset by the next one. 

It’s vital for people today to understand that dealing with collective trauma and cascading traumas can be overwhelming, paralyzing, and for many leads to unhealthy and maladaptive coping behaviors. Often, these maladaptive coping behaviors can become habits that are unhealthy and hard to break. 

How Stressed Out Is America? 

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), nearly one-third of people in the United States are so stressed out by this cascading trauma that they are struggling to make even the basic, daily decisions that used to come so easily. In fact, according to their survey and report, Stress in America™ 2021, millennials are the hardest hit by this mass trauma or collective trauma and stress

In the study, the following was found in regards to different generations and how their stress levels impact daily decision-making. The following is the percent of individuals in each age group who say the collective stress today have made basic, daily decisions difficult: 

  • Older adults- 3%
  • Baby Boomers- 14% 
  • Gen Xers-32%
  • Gen Z adults-37%
  • Millennials- 48%

As the study illustrates, everyone has been impacted but the Millenials are much more so. In addition to feeling more stress, the same generations feeling more stressed out also reported feeling less able to cope with the stressors they’re facing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and more. 45% of Gen Zers and 50% of Millennials reported they didn’t know how to cope with these stressors. Baby Boomers, Older Adults, and Gen Xers reported that they were better able to handle the collective stress with 21% of Boomers, 12% of Older Adults, and 32% of the Gen Xers saying they didn’t have coping skills to handle the unprecedented stressors they faced. 

It’s not surprising that the younger generations, who have faced less collective trauma, are having the most difficult time coping. What’s more, parents of young children are also having trouble making basic decisions and coping with life since the pandemic began. From juggling work and having young kids learning virtually at home to economic and discrimination concerns, families are more stressed-out than ever before. According to the same survey, the following were the top stressors: 

  • Work
  • Money
  • Economy
  • Family responsibilities
  • Personal health concerns
  • Family health problems
  • Relationships
  • Cost of housing
  • Personal safety
  • Job stability 
  • Discrimination

These are the stressors leading the list for just about everyone across the nation. These are listed in the order of most stressful to least stressful according to the survey. And how are these stressors impacting people? The younger generations–and parents–seem to be suffering the most with the following: 

  • Headaches 
  • Sleep changes
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed
  • Fatigue 

These are the leading problems being experienced. In fact, 74% of those surveyed by the APA reported experiencing these problems since the pandemic began. With these extreme and ongoing amounts of stress being felt by so many in the nation, it’s imperative that there are supports in place to help. But, for many, they are really going it alone coping with it all. 

How Is America Coping with the Cascading Trauma? 

As mentioned, many Americans, particularly the younger generations, say they just don’t know how to cope. The rise of both alcohol use, overdoses, and significant weight gains have been seen since the pandemic’s onset. This leads many to believe that Americans are using alcohol and drugs as well as food, which can also lead to addictive behaviors to attempt to cope with the overwhelming feelings of stress. 

While most Americans are learning to cope, it may be at a cost. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been significant increases in the following from June 2019 to June 2020:L

  • Mental health conditions
  • Substance and alcohol abuse
  • Suicidal ideations 

It’s important to realize that some of the ways that many are coping, will hurt them in the long run. This especially includes the increase in alcohol consumption. This increase in alcohol consumption was reported by 25% of all respondents, but a shocking 52% of those who were parents reported drinking more alcohol since the pandemic began. This again, shows that parents are taking the brunt of the stress, particularly younger families with incomes under $50K. 

In addition, many Americans have reported that they are exercising less and feeling less motivated in general. This can also exacerbate many of these stressors. Regular exercise has been shown to combat not only depression and anxiety but also help with maintaining a healthy weight. 

It seems many in America are merely ‘getting by’. 

Collective Trauma Research Shows What Helps People Cope Best 

It’s important to understand that how people cope and heal from collective trauma is unique to each person. The exact way everyone experiences and interprets trauma is often different from one person to the next. In addition, due to socio-economic and other factors, certain groups are harder hit by collective trauma than others. 

In regards to the COVID-19 pandemic, the following groups have been hit harder in many ways, including facing higher levels of stress and lower levels of resiliency than others in America: 

  • Black communities
  • Latinx communities
  • Indigenous communities

 Many in these communities also are faced with the following adding to the stress: 

  • Historical trauma
  • Systematic racism
  • Persistent poverty

These additional traumas lead to crowded living situations, lack of access to both medical and mental health care, job losses, and more. It’s essential that when we are healing our nation, those who have suffered most be given the right amount of assistance and help. These communities are in greater need and when left unaddressed the problems will only grow. In fact, many are warning that there will be a mental health crisis if resources aren’t provided that so many desperately need. It’s speculated the high rise in crime and murders across many large U.S. cities is a result of the stressors and mental health crisis ensuing from the ongoing cascading and collective traumas. 

According to research, there are certain things that help to improve stress tolerance and resiliency in communities and nations facing collective trauma resulting in collective stress. These are a few: 

  • Community commitment
  • Community integration
  • Strong social connections
  • Emotional support

These results were from a study on Israeli communities that underwent seven years of daily rocket assaults that had high resiliency rates and lower collective stress rates. 

In addition to these types of support, individuals must address any of their own individual issues that may have begun during this time. This includes any mental health conditions that have developed or worsened, any alcohol or substance abuse that has started, as well as any significant health issues like significant weight gain or becoming sedentary. 

When it comes to alcohol or substance abuse, what can start as a way to ‘take the edge off’ or help you to cope can soon become a dependency which can lead to addiction. Some signs of addiction are as follows: 

  • Trying to cut down or stop drinking or using a drug but being unable to do so
  • Developing a tolerance for the substance–needing more to get the same feeling or relief
  • Continuing to drink or use a drug despite adverse effects to your health, relationships, work, or school
  • Getting into legal or financial troubles as a result of drinking or using a drug
  • Drinking or using more of a drug than intended 
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking or using the substance
  • Neglecting responsibilities due to use 
  • Giving up activities and hobbies previously like to drink more or use more 

The more of these a person experiences, the more severe the problem is. It’s vital with alcohol use or substance use disorder (AUD and SUD) to get help sooner than later. Both are progressive conditions that only get worse over time and without treatment. However, treatment for an AUD or SUD can lead to recovery and long-lasting recovery with perseverance. 

It’s also important to understand that often there are underlying mental health conditions like PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Addiction can mask these. However, getting treatment for any co-occurring mental health disorder is essential to building a solid recovery foundation. As mentioned, drinking has increased since the pandemic and those individuals with more stressors have been drinking even more. Alcohol and drugs can be a coping behavior for many and this addiction must be treated, but it’s also vital to address the underlying mental health issues and collective stress for a full recovery. 

The cascading trauma seems to be continuing today, however, there are hopes for the future. It’s important that each person does their best to take care of their own health–physical and mental–and find healthy ways to cope. This is what we can do to heal ourselves, our families, our communities, and the world.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with drinking more or using another substance since the pandemic Futures Recovery Healthcare can help. We offer three programs for the treatment of AUD and SUD as well as a program entirely devoted to mental health treatment. Visit our Admission page to learn more or call us at 866-804-2098.

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