Many of us have spent every day since October 7, 2023, in a state of some kind of trauma. Call it secondary trauma, vicarious trauma, generational trauma, post traumatic stress disorder (known more commonly as PTSD)- however you want to term it, there is collective trauma going on right now and it is impacting our day to day.
“I don’t know how to move on.”
“Nothing else feels important right now.”
“I can’t let myself think about it.”
“I can’t stop thinking about what happened.”
“I pushed myself to get into routine.”
“I’m barely functioning.”
There is a range of physical, psychological and/or emotional responses that are coming up, and from everything people have shared with me thus far, they are all normal reactions to be experiencing at this time.
I have found it helpful, and somewhat grounding, to keep in mind the shiva mourning process, laid out in a way where it is expected that the first week is the most intense. It makes so much sense to struggle to do even the basics in the first week after a tragedy, and then still continue to have a level of this intensity within the first month, and to still feel the impact way beyond that. I am sharing this idea to help normalize the intense emotions and reactions currently being experienced by so many. (Because every person is different, if somebody seems unaffected or is able to go on with their regular life quickly, this does not mean they don’t care. They may just be having a different kind of trauma response.)
There is more than one way to react to trauma and grief, and there is no timeline for grief. As a colleague of mine with close family across Israel, speaking about his experience being in contact with his family, shared, “Sometimes we are laughing together and sometimes we are really scared.”
Emotionally, feelings are ranging from heartbroken, numb, devastated, sad, angry, broken, uplifted, hopeful, despairing, strong, scared, and proud- just to name a few.
Mentally and physically, this can include spending hours feeling frozen, ‘out of it’, in a daze; getting through the day as though in a fog. It can be difficult to concentrate, focus, attend to what is needed, and find a balance of keeping up with the news and staying away from the news without being out of touch.
I think many Jewish people, both inside and outside of Israel, are trying to navigate, within their traumatized systems, space to process information and emotions and thoughts and responses. On top of the enormous emotional burden, there is the undercurrent of the need for functioning. We need to eat, prepare food, shower, and sleep to be minimally functional. We also need to attend to work and families and the daily minutiae to be functional. Currently, the space, willpower, energy and abilities needed to function optimally are hidden under the heavy collective trauma and accessing those qualities has ranged for each person.
Navigating through a collective trauma while it is still ongoing is presenting as one of the most common questions I have encountered in the last week. Since trauma can present as physical, psychological, and emotional, it is important to address these experiences directly.
First, I think it is important to recognize what, how and where you are experiencing your reaction. Tune in to your system, notice the way that your body is holding the information and the feelings. Breathwork (as basic as taking slow, deep breaths) and gentle movement are examples of somatic approaches, which can help calm our nervous systems that have been impacted by stress. Taking the time to address the physical part of our systems will allow for progressing to the other areas. Mentally, it can be helpful to validate and reassure yourself that your response is a normal response to trauma. When we pay attention to ourselves, physically and mentally, it can help with managing strong feelings.
Here are 7 dimensions of coping, from the teachings of Israeli psychologist and psychotrauma specialist Mooli Lahad:
- Physical activity- This is a well known approach to help release good chemicals into the system.
- Analytic thinking- When the brain is forced to think in a clear manner, this can reduce stress. Following a recipe, reading, or writing an article can be a good example of this.
- Engage in something that will have a positive impact on you emotionally or spiritually- Be kind. Do good.
- Family- Though many people have challenging familial relationships, family can be a tremendous source of support. This may be a good time to heal wounds and work through personal family issues. (Reminder: this does not pertain to everybody and is situation-dependent.)
- Faith- For those who are able to draw upon faith based thoughts or engage in faith based behaviors, this can be strengthening and comforting.
- Friends- Using text is a way to connect with friends. If possible, speaking to a friend or even gathering in groups can do wonders for our systems. The more we do things together, the more benefit we can gain. Connection is a vital piece of approaching collective trauma and grief. Collective, by definition, refers to a group of people. The Jewish People as a whole have been severely impacted, and are sharing in the trauma and grief within a spectrum of reactions. Connection, whether via communal actions such as rallies, prayer groups, and supply drives, or speaking one-on-one with a friend or therapist, allows for a collective response to a collective experience.
- Imagination- Be creative. Find something that is an outlet for your unique energy.
Karen reached out for help, feeling overwhelmed by waves of emotion and confused about the multiple emotional burdens she was shouldering. “How do I manage the regular worries in my life when there’s so much more to worry about now?Is that stuff still important?”
People are not sure how to focus on both what is currently transpiring on a global level, managing the macro levels of stress and tension with the more micro stressors of everyday life. Are our day-to-day worries still important, or does the grief, fear, and macro-level worry eclipse all? Remember that polarities are often extreme, and we can allow for multiple spaces that need our attention. It is not about neglecting one extreme for the other. The levels of concern we have at a macro level do not completely eliminate the micro stressors, but it may help to put our perspectives in balance. Perhaps it can help make choices from a more helpful outlook, as our emotional energy is now being diverted.
“Instead of spending hours picking out the menu and centerpieces for my son’s bar mitzvah, I didn’t bother deliberating too much,” Shani shared. “I focused on the blessing of spending time with my family and it helped me remember not to sweat the small stuff. I still care about what it looks like, I’m just not as invested the way I would have been a few weeks ago.”
While we don’t want to neglect anything vital, such as relationship or health concerns, it is possible that a shift in the way certain stressors weigh on us may be beneficial. It is not that those choices, decisions, or stresses are not important anymore- they very well may be. It is the level of intensity with which we approach those that may be different now.
In addition, it can be helpful to conceptualize a way of channeling the energy that you have in a way that is most beneficial to you. I like to compare it to having a battery that is draining- it is limited, and not at full capacity. It takes some planning to determine how to best use the battery that is left. Similarly, understanding what one’s current capabilities and responsibilities are can help one plan for ways to function optimally.
As we navigate through this trauma, it is so imperative to address the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual components. Taking care of oneself takes a tremendous amount of energy, and may need to be addressed from several angles. Just do your best, and reach out for support as needed. You are not alone.
This article originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times.