Collective trauma. Conversations with psychologists

Collective trauma. Conversations with psychologists

“Children of war" was a concept created after the Second World War regarding people who spent their childhood in restrictions and did not receive care or attention because their father could be at the front, and the mother would be working to restore the country. Due to growing up with the lack of something, as adults, they would care more about financial stability rather than focusing on the emotional state of their children. This example is one of the manifestations of collective trauma due to the war. 

Svidomi talked to male and female psychologists and psychotherapists about the definition of collective trauma, the likelihood of its development in Ukrainians after the Russian-Ukrainian war and ways to work through trauma.


"Collective trauma is not a clinical analysis. It’s rather a description of social phenomena observed in societies after events that threatened a large group of people simultaneously," says Mariana Franko, psychologist, psychotherapist, and head of the psychological studio Sense. 

Nowadays, the concept of collective trauma is studied not only in psychology. Epigenetics is analyzing it in the context of how the stress experienced by society affects the functioning of people and subsequent generations. People who have gone through extreme experiences at the same time have more active specific genetic processes - it’s not the gene itself that changes, but its expression, that is, how active it is.

Transgenerational trauma is a more complex concept associated with symptoms at the level of nervous system reactions, metabolic reactions, and the level of what we pass on and how we teach children. 

Franko says that after the famine and Holodomor, there were reactions similar to traumatic ones: a person would overeat and have compulsive behaviors with food. People who survived Holodomor will bring up their children fearing the threat of hunger. A child who has not experienced hunger may have anxiety that they cannot explain to themselves and will also hoard food. If these things are not talked about, they can be traumatic. 

Psychotherapist and military psychologist Oleksii Karachynskyi says that everyone goes through specific experiences, and based on general statistics, Karachynskyi disagrees that it will remain equally traumatic for everyone.

Have the current events of the war already resulted in collective trauma?

"At the moment we are not traumatized, however we are experiencing traumatic events. We cannot say whether we will have trauma as the traumatic events are not yet over. It depends on how we experience it. During the months of full-scale war, we can see how stress-resistant and strong Ukrainians are - this is a good indicator of what can happen to our mental health afterwards," says psychiatrist and cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist Sofia Vlokh.

Oleksii Karachynskyi agrees that we cannot talk about trauma yet. There are traumatic events; there are its participants and witnesses. For example, if there’s  a rocket flying nearby - I am a participant of a traumatic event.  A missile that flew to my friend's house - I am a witness to a traumatic event. 

"According to statistics, up to 15% of witnesses are participants in traumatic events and receive traumatic experiences that they cannot process - this is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, other participants and witnesses of traumatic events can process the traumatic experience and survive it," the psychotherapist explains.

How can collective trauma manifest itself?

Karachynsky says that personal trauma is reflected in how a person may avoid the place of the traumatic event: for example, someone does not want to return to Bucha. Or it can be a repeated experience: we hear a particular sound and re-experience the emotion of fear - from air raids, arrivals or explosions. We can repeat a traumatic event in a dream, or it can appear before our eyes.

Sofia Vlokh suggests that the war will increase psychological problems, depression, and somatic diseases. "There may be changes in national characteristics, for example, the tendency to idealize one's identity, seeing others as the enemy. I am not talking about Ukraine now, but generally about the possible consequences of various collective traumas — sometimes, it leads to feuds or wars. It all depends on what kind of trauma it was, how many people were affected, what was happening at the time, and what was done after the trauma: whether there was reflection and response," says Vlokh. 

In her opinion, the latter can consist of creating monuments, memorials, mourning, epic, music, films, and theatrical performances, where the events are relived and released accordingly. 

Can the policy of memory in museums, monuments and topographical names be considered the elaboration of collective trauma?

"This depends on what kind of memory we want to perpetuate and what semantic load and symbolism this or that monument or museum carries. Suppose we erect a monument to Taras Shevchenko, for example, because it should be there, but do not attach importance to it. In that case, it is rather a silencing of information that will stop our development and devalue Shevchenko and the very concept of the monument. Then the monument is more like a burial ground to "seal" some event and close it from us," says Mariana Franko. 

As a positive example of commemoration, the psychologist cites the Heroes of Maidan Street in Lviv, which is a symbol and carries the concept of heroism in its name. It supports potential energy and resource memory, reminding us that we have influence and can change something. Then there is a deeper meaning, and that is commemoration.

How to work through collective trauma to minimize the impact on future generations?

If the trauma is not subjected to the described ritual for a long time, like mourning, for instance, it will weaken after a significant period, says Sofia Vlokh. This is because a person cannot constantly experience acute pain. Over time, suffering will be gradually decreased, but the unprocessed trauma will be evident. 

"The way to overcome trauma is to commemorate the tragic events, not to deny and not to detach. The brain needs them in order to mourn, grieve and heal," the psychotherapist says. 

Research and psychologists say that often during reflection and experiencing an event of the war, it is possible to process previous collective traumas. For example, the consequences of Holodomor affected not only the attitude to food but also specific nationalistic traits of character - there was a suppression of the national movement, people were imposed political passivity, the principle "to not stand up". Instead, the unification of Ukraine, manifestation of national identity, and resistance are underway. We can work out collective traumas of the past.

Mariana Franko says that in order to work through collective trauma, it must be recognised, shared and adequately supported. If we avoid conversations, silence problems and do not receive support, we replay and reproduce this trauma at the individual or social level.

"Now we are going through a significant period in the history of Ukraine. For the first time in centuries, we are receiving support from the whole world. We have a chance to win and make people understand that it was difficult for us all the previous years. The world supports us. Moreover, we are receiving great recognition and respect. This is a great chance to heal this collective trauma," Franko said.