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It is harder to crack prejudice than an atom.
—Albert Einstein

Trauma can be social, even global, as well as individual. The importance of discovering the effects of our early family relations and seminal events on our current state of mind, health, and behaviors is paramount. But trauma isn’t just personal and private but also social and public.

Man-made social cataclysms and natural disasters influence the herd mentality. Let’s broaden the context to explain how this is so.

Following the first law of thermodynamics, energy does not dissipate or disappear but converts into a different form of energy. Considering this law, we may not perceive the connections between people, yet they exist in another state. Mass hysteria is an example of this phenomenon catalyzed by rumors that generate fearful speculation of impending doom or a sense of outrage. It’s a big emotion that people like to express. There is, in fact, an illusion of a threat, but in all instances of mass hysteria, no identifiable cause exists.

Collective Unconscious: We Are All Unconsciously Connected

Carl Jung described the “collective unconscious” of human beings; the idea is that we are all unconsciously yet truly connected. We do not neces­sarily see the impact on each other—how our beliefs, energies, and thoughts affect each other. But they do have a ripple effect. This phenomenon is con­sistent with quantum entanglements, which explain how the tiniest particles of our being can affect others.

If you are around a high-energy individual, her dynamic nature may be contagious and affect you and others in her proximity. We tend to call these people influencers or charismatic.

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Consider the notion that entire societies harbor a storehouse of memories that harken back to ancestral times—memories that form the collective uncon­scious. Perhaps one of the most common expressions of collective, unconscious response is when we engage in fits of uncontrollable giggling that become side­splitting, infectious laughter.

The Mass Group Effect

Two distinctive processes exist wherein a peer pressure mentality affects conformity to a group belief system and leads to someone giving up their thought process. The mass group effect creates disinhibited and unleashed emotions, overtaking the rational mind -- an ever-present, dangerous phenom­enon during riots throughout history. The distorted ideas have a kindling effect, spreading like wildfire.

The response is fear and terror when buttons are pushed by environ­mental triggers, and natural disasters like the COVID-19 epidemic. First, we attempt to run and hide from the terror without knowing the cause. Then, as the going gets rough—fear and anger about social and racial inequality, economic catastrophe, and so on—we become overwhelmed and helpless and look for causation. Generally, we find influencers or people with strong lead­ership skills who offer up a scapegoat.

Parental Trauma

I will share my experience during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This should give you a taste of the effects of parental trauma on their offspring during a natural disaster and the resultant social trauma—a combination that, in some cases, can amplify and worsen trauma.

I am the first in my family to be born in America. My late parents were Jews who survived Nazi persecution in Europe during World War II and settled in the US. I know they had PTSD; their anguish and sense of loss about denied dreams hovered at the edge of my consciousness, awaiting provocation.

I have had my share of PTSD. Science reports that people like me may have inherited sensitivity to stress, possibly passed on from conception or in utero.

Because I am quick to startle and am so sensitive to visceral anxiety, I have learned to avoid traumatic TV and media news. Generally I take in only relevant morsels of bad information rather than gluttonous binges. However, during the early months of the pandemic, when the continuous barrage of bad news about the mishandling containment of the virus was still fresh, the information was too nerve-wracking to ignore.

Glued to the tube, my husband and I binge-watched the news for the first few months and listened with disbelief to the elaboration of government avoidance and blunders. The Coronavirus Task Force meetings were per­versely illuminating and addictive. “You just can’t make this stuff up” became our mantra.

The pandemic and attendant divisive climate have set off many alarm bells for me. I shudder when viewing flashing chyrons that inventory COVID-19 deaths on news channels, delivered like sports scores rather than the toll of human souls. Counting people has constantly upset me. Sometimes when I see the death toll, I feel the weight of Nazis numbering my Jewish ancestors to prepare them for slaughter.

Ambushed briefly by intrusive memories (not flashbacks, thank good­ness) of contagion that eluded me for decades, I am taken back to 1983 when I was in medical school at Mount Sinai in New York, the epicenter at the onset of the AIDS crisis. We didn’t know much about the contagion of this mysterious virus that was killing our patients. It was an exhausting and humbling time when on-call, 36-hour shifts were standard. Being young and unconcerned, I must have felt invincible or exempted from contagion. My insouciance—no doubt denial that each patient had AIDS—kept me from making the five-minute investment to get PPE.

Consequently, I took a year-long course on antibiotics for tuberculosis because I was exposed. After pricking myself deeply during a blood draw, I worried for a year that I may have contracted AIDS. Once, I tried to revive a favorite patient, a young man with AIDS. I frantically delivered CPR. Our tears and sweat mingled; my cracked, ripped hangnails stung. We were both 24. I still feel my heart leaping into my throat as I write about his death.

Social Trauma Exacerbate Anxieties

Today’s social traumas exacerbate people’s anxieties. Racial injustice and political corruption seem magnified, and epidemics fuel the plague of xeno­phobia and hatred. But, unlike viruses, humans discriminate and love to find scapegoats—we make a bad situation worse.

The brutal suffocation of George Floyd, the horrifying omnipresent foot­age, and the continuing aftermath of violence was appalling and conjured images of Kristallnacht. National guardsmen armored with gas masks and shields assaulted calm protesters. They shot them with rubber bullets, blinded them with pepper spray, and hosed them with tear gas. For me, this was an apocalyptic moment.

Tohubohu is a Hebrew word meaning a state of chaos. While watching YouTube coverage, the timbre of screams conjured how I imagined it was to hear people screaming in the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I envi­sioned my ancestors being murdered, gassed to death with Zyklon B; their final pleas, prayers, and utterances were “I can’t breathe.”

Sometimes I conjure narrations of events and people from another land and time who thought terrible things could never happen to them. I always come back to my parents’ lives. Historically, Jews have been scapegoats for the world’s woes, including plagues. According to the Wiesenthal Center, the FBI warns that, even now, neo-Nazis are priming their ranks to “take out as many Jews as possible.”

Anti-Semitic hate crimes have tripled in recent years. Anti-Asian hate crimes have skyrocketed. We must prevent a further descent into this kind of evil because mass psychology lends itself to emotional contagion that can be completely irrational and devoid of reason. People who don’t have secure attachments or strong identities are more likely to be swayed by social upheaval. As a result, they’re more vulnerable to certain types of distorted thinking—irrational ideas, paranoid beliefs, anxiety, and stress­ful concerns. Because I’m the child of two Holocaust survivors, and history shows that Jews are a very common scapegoat, I worry that people will blame the Jews for COVID, the loss of jobs, and more. Yet while I worry, I am not so frantic that I will flee the country.

The takeaway is that responses to social trauma vary considerably among people who have suffered personal trauma. My response is no doubt differ­ent from another individual’s. Nonetheless, it’s wise to consider the linkage between social and emotional trauma, because sometimes this linkage can be illuminating.

Copyright 2023. All Rights Reserved.
Printed with permission of the publisher,
Greenleaf Book Group Press.

Article Source:

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book cover of Yesterday Never Sleeps by Jacqueline Heller MS, MDIn Yesterday Never Sleeps, Jacqueline Heller draws upon decades of clinical experience to weave together a powerful narrative that contains neuroscience, memoir of her life as a child of Holocaust survivors, and patient histories involving a range of psychological ills and trauma.

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