Thames North Synod Office
St Paul’s United Reformed Church
London W2 5LS
Tel: 020 7799 5000

Coronavirus & Collective Trauma

A short article on the traumatic effect of the coronavirus

Traumatic Effects of the Coronavirus

Brief notes from the Synod Clerk:

My work as a chaplain for the London Fire Brigade touches on this issue.

I offer up these notes in case they may be of help.

The graph shows the typical emotional trajectory of trauma

You may already feel able to place yourself on that graph. A lot of behaviour I could see during the initial period of lockdown was within the ‘heroic’ phase.

Some of you may think that, by means of your strength of will/character, you are not beholden to such projections. But trauma takes us into profound primordial instincts, located in the inner primitive part of our brain. Trauma even hinders access to the cerebral cortex, the part of our brain that deals with rational thought.

Don't be surprised if you find yourself behaving irrationally (or rather, more irrationally than usual.)

The thing to note is that these reactions are normal.

And different parts of the country, and indeed different parts of London, are on different trajectories.

Some of us have already suffered loss: loved ones, a job. Or we watch at a distance as those we love fight for their lives in hospital. And when death strikes, our grief is made worse by the enforced distance which denies us the chance to mourn the departure of our loves ones in the way we expect.

I think we are undergoing (even for those not directly affected by bereavement) a form of what some have termed collective trauma – when our social fabric is no longer present as it was before. Our sense of connection is under threat, or simply gone.

Collective trauma is different from, and more than the sum of, our individual hurts.

The impact of trauma goes beyond the pain and loss experienced through the event itself. The worldview of the traumatized – their interior landscape – is fundamentally unhinged. Trauma breaks down your sense of trust in the world, trust in your relationships, trust in yourself. It undermines your confidence to 'do life'.

Hence, recovery is a process of rebuilding trust.

Social support is the most powerful means of protection against being overwhelmed by trauma. However, our social connections often become casualties after a trauma; we lose confidence to engage with people, and are tempted to go into our shell.

Good individual habits to mitigate trauma:

  • Healthy sleep practices
  • Regular exercise
  • Good nutrition
  • Maintaining caring relationships;
    • Expressions of personal and relational care
  • Relaxation techniques, mindfulness.
  • Empowerment:
    • Harnessing your energies to overcome any sense of powerlessness:
    • So, send that encouraging text. Make that phone call. Do that online Zumba. Take out the garbage of the old lady who lives near you. Therapists also speak of the enormous benefit of doing somebody else some good.

Dark Humour:

Firefighters often develop a dark sense of humour as a survival mechanism. No doubt people will develop their own lines of 'corona-comedy'. But the boundaries for this kind of humour are subtle. One person's gallows humour might be salt in another's wound. If in doubt, best keep the dark humour within the circle of your close friends.

Two paths:

Collective trauma manifests in ways that are typically polarized into two forms:

Either it will expose and widen fractures that exist – often hidden.

Or it will engender a kind of spiritual kinship, create new bonds of healing.

How can we lead our reactions in a positive direction, towards community health?

Research points to four practices:

  1. Mutual commitment to build community and enhance social connectedness.
  2. Identifying and practicing ways to tell the story of the community’s experience and response
  3. Mutual commitment to re‑establish ordinary rhythms and routines of life and engaging together in healing rituals
  4. Seeking to arrive at a positive vision of the future with renewed hope

I hope these notes help.

Suggested reading below, for those who would like to look further.

Happy Eastertide!


Synod Clerk

 1 Zunin/Meyers, as cited in U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  (2000).  Training manual for mental health and human service workers in major disasters (DHHS Publication 90–538).  Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services.   

Suggested reading

Megan Warner, Christopher Southgate, Carla A. Grosch-Miller and Hilary Ison, eds., Tragedies and Christian Congregations: The Practical theology of trauma, London and New York: Routledge, 2020.

Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery, London: HarperCollins, 1992.

Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, London: 4th Estate, 2016.

Bessel A. Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, London: Penguin Books, 2015.

Kai Erikson, A New Species of Trouble: The Human Experience of Modern Disasters, New York: WW Norton, 1994.

Jack Saul, Collective Trauma and Collective Healing, New York: Routledge, 2014.

World Health Organization, Psychological first aid: Guide for field workers, War Trauma Foundation and World Vision International: Geneva, 2011.

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