Navigating Collective Trauma

Most of us don’t remember WWII, but we do remember the traumatic effects that the Vietnam War,  9/11,  Iraq and Afghanistan had on us all.  Our Western states deal with the devastating effects of fires,  earthquakes, and mudslides.  The Midwest and South have their tornadoes. The East Coast has its hurricanes, as do we on the Gulf.  This country has endured two major oil spills that affected the lives of many Americans.  The past several years we have experienced numerous mass shootings across the country.  Many of us are not strangers to feeling traumatized from disasters, natural and human.  This time we are all part of the collective trauma of COVID-19 that is affecting the entire world.

This time it feels different. We are familiar with what happens in disasters, natural ones anyway, but not this one. We are dealing with something invisible, something unknown, something we have very little control over, something for which we don’t know a timeline or an outcome.

Americans are known for our rugged individualism that we probably inherited from our stiff-upper-lipped English ancestors and learned from John Wayne movies.  Yet, for many of us, feelings of anxiety, fear, grief, and anger are felt deep down, especially as we lie in bed in the dark and quiet of night.  Having the isolation of social distancing doesn’t help.

But I don’t think John Wayne is going to get us through this, folks.  I don’t think any of us can do this alone.  I do think our hope lies in community.  We are just going to have to be creative in finding ways to develop a community around us.  Already we are finding ways to improvise ways to stay connected with those we care about.  Talking and texting on the phone of course, but also more of us are using Zoom, Facetime, Facebook meetings, and walks in the neighborhood.  My sister and I have returned to writing handwritten letters. I think a deeper understanding of trauma and working together to support each other through it is what will pull us through.

The person experiencing the distressing event may feel threatened, anxious, or frightened as a result.

Let’s take a look at trauma.  What is it exactly?  A definition is “the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences.”  The person experiencing the distressing event may feel threatened, anxious, or frightened as a result.   Acute trauma results from a single incident, like a car accident.  It can be chronic, such as domestic abuse.  It can also be complex from exposure to multiple traumatic events, such as war.  I would say we are in a state of collective trauma.

One thing to know about trauma it that, as we are catapulted into our survival mode we may revert back into some coping skills that we may have learned earlier in our lives. Trauma, and even intense stress, can bring out a side of ourselves that we thought we had outgrown.  I was listening to C Span discussing COVID-19 about a week ago.  A man called in and said one group of people who won’t have problems with income will be divorce lawyers.  He and his wife who both work, are now at home and not getting along…at all.  I suspect this is not uncommon right now.

As a healthcare practitioner and professional caregiver, I am used to supporting others.  As a child of two alcoholics, one of my coping mechanisms was to do just that, ie support others and not express my own feelings.  I think I learned this so well that I sometimes am not aware of what is going on inside until I burst out with intense emotions.   I thought I was handling the stresses of the pandemic until I surprised my significant other….and myself… having a melt-down.  Underneath my learned coping skills, I found myself in a very raw place, a very disconcerting place but a place of transformation if I so choose.  One thing I am learning through this experience is how I can…and must…practice my own self-care, not just physically but also emotionally and spiritually.

In my shamanic studies, I learned that a shaman is a wounded healer.  In the ancient indigenous cultures, the village would recognize a budding shaman by paying attention to someone who survived a trauma.  They might have been born with a birth defect that set them apart from others.  They might have lost a limb in an accident and continued to experience a great deal of physical pain.  They might have had a near-death experience or illness.  They might have had a nervous breakdown of some kind.  The village would see this as a shamanic initiation, and members would take this person to the local shaman who would take them under his or her wing and mentor them.

To me what we are experiencing is a possible collective shamanic initiation.   We have the opportunity to work together as a global village to recognize and nurture one another.

Each and every one of us will have our own unique backgrounds and life experiences that will color how we handle crisis and trauma.  We are all being given the opportunity to gain a deeper self-understanding, compassion, and patience for ourselves and others.

I would like to share some of the resources I have found to be especially helpful in working with trauma.  They all use approaches that involve working, not just with the mind, but also with the body:

NICABM ( National Institute for Classical Application of Behavioral Medicine )  is an organization of psychologists that provides education to professionals and the public on various topics of mental health.  One of their popular topics is trauma.  Two of my favorite practitioners are Peter Levine Ph.D. ( developer of Somatic Experiencing ) and Bessel van der Kolk MD, author of The Body Keeps Score.

TRE (Trauma Release Exercises) is a system developed by David Berceli.  Mr. Berceli spent years working with communities around the world that were experiencing complex trauma, such as war.  He developed a body approach based on observations of animals who were traumatized.  When chased by a predator, they would jump into the fight or flight mode.  Some also go into a freeze mode ( playing possum.)  When the animals escaped, their bodies would shake uncontrollably.  Then they would resume their lives like nothing happened.  Humans, on the other hand, tend to control our bodies and not allow them to go through the shaking release of the fight or flight response.  It’s almost as if they move into a chronic freeze mode in which they lose some of their innate aliveness.  Berceli developed exercises that a person can learn to do for themselves which allows the body to shake and release the tension that otherwise they continue to carry.

In the 1980’s a psychologist named Jack Rosenberg Ph.D. wrote a book called Body, Self, and Soul.  This was my first introduction to the concept of disassociation.   Disassociation is the mental process of disconnecting from one’s thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity that is a common symptom of PTSD.  Dr. Rosenberg called this disconnection with oneself “fragmentation.”  A person feels like they are not present and are outside their body observing themselves from the outside.  People who have a history of childhood abuse or neglect have a greater tendency to experience this when they experience trauma.  He used Bioenergetic Therapy to help his patients re-integrate themselves.

In a shamanic culture, this phenomenon is called “soul loss.”  Sandra Ingerman Ph.D. and Alberto Villoldo Ph.D. are shamanic teachers who address this.  The explanation is that when a person is facing a possible traumatic injury or loss, it is a survival mechanism of a person’s essence or “soul” to exit the body to the energy world so they won’t be in their body for the impact.  Who wants to be in their body if they are facing a head-on collision?  Once the danger is over, they are meant to return completely to their body.  However, in a particularly intense or ongoing traumatic experience, all of the pieces of a person’s “soul” or essence may not return.  They remain in one’s energy body.  With the support of the community, the shaman is responsible for facilitating the return of the missing pieces so the person can experience their wholeness again.

In shamanic cultures, a death of something is not seen as a bad thing.  Whether it is a part of ourselves that no longer serves us or a way of life, death of the old is necessary for the birth of a new way of being.  If we are indeed experiencing a collective shamanic initiation with this pandemic, going through this transformation together in community, a community of humanity, lifting one another up along the way, is how we can do this!


Bonnie McLean
Bonnie McLean
Dr. Bonnie McLean O.M.D, A.P. has been in practice for 36 years. A graduate of Duke University School of Nursing, she practiced nursing as an RN for 20 years before embarking on her studies in natural medicine, which included an MA in Counseling from Pepperdine University, a Doctorate in Oriental Medicine from California Acupuncture College, and training in energy medicine and shamanic healing. In addition to her holistic acupuncture practice, she is a writer and speaker. She is author of Integrative Medicine: The Return of the Soul to Healthcare, which can be found on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Bonnie is a contributing author to the inspiring book Crappy to Happy: Sacred Stories of Transformational Joy

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  1. Thank you for this, Bonnie! Being from Massachusetts, I am most familiar with Bessel’s work, and as a therapist and hypnotherapist, I appreciate your thoughtful and informative commentary on trauma. Many people do not understand the impact of trauma. Dissociation is useful for the abused child, but as adults re-integration is imperative in order to lead a healthy life. Impressive from the shamanic perspective which I did not know. I appreciate your insights.💖

    • Thanks so much, Darlene! Hopefully those of us who do have a history of trauma will be able to use this opportunity to heal on some very deep levels. And hopefully those who didn’t will be able to have more compassion for those did.