From Shaheen Bagh to Jamia: How Do We Deal With Collective Trauma?
In the aftermath of protests, there is a universal question about how we’re going to ever heal our psychic injuries.
In his highly controversial book The Divided Self, Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing details how a 17-year-old girl diagnosed with schizophrenia in a mental health facility tells him she is terrified because ‘the Atom Bomb is inside her’. This is not uncommon when it comes to hallucinatory effects of paranoid schizophrenia. Laing then juxtaposes this proclamation against the warmongering jibes of those politicians who threaten that they have ‘doomsday weapons’, and asks us to compare who is more estranged from reality and treading the truly jagged edges of a psychosis. Laing does this not to undermine the psychological impact of paranoid schizophrenia, but to highlight what is positioned as sanity versus what is deemed insane in our society. In turn, he also ends up highlighting the political and socio-cultural realities interlaced at the core of our collective mental health.
Fighting Multiple Battles
I recently conducted a care circle in Mumbai where I invited people to sit and speak to each other, share food, stories, and poem with this belief that radical vulnerability demands radical compassion. The idea behind facilitating my meetup was to help create an inclusive and secure space for folks to unpack their grief and anger while opening themselves up to experience some form of catharsis through community and conversations.
Politically, we are at a debilitating peak where the fight for our civic liberties is raging in every direction even as the metronome on global climate disaster ticks louder by the minute. The Australian bushfires, the women sitting in the spine-numbing cold in Shaheen Bagh, the daily grotesque of rape statistics on the rise in India; there is a universal question about how are we going to ever heal our psychic injuries.
As the protests against structural oppression and state-sanctioned sectarianism gain momentum, mental health professionals like me are seeing a heavy influx of clients who are displaying signs similar to what is classified as PTSD in clinical lexicon.
People from minoritized communities show greater and more visible fatigue from trauma exposure while also subtracted from the privilege that enables access to mental and physical health-related help. What we are experiencing right now is called ‘collective trauma’.
Defining Collective Trauma
It is impossible to settle on a singular definition for collective trauma. We are all familiar with a more common understanding of psychological trauma – emotional damage and pain that is experienced in the aftermath of a distressing event. American sociologist Jeffrey Alexander veers further from this and refers to ‘cultural trauma’ as symbolic renderings of a cultural script and differentiates it from a more individualized understanding of what he calls ‘lay trauma’- trauma which emerges from an individual’s direct and specific experiences with a violent event. As per Alexander,
“Collective trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.”
His definition can very well account for larger narratives around partition, apartheid, holocaust among other truly despicable atrocities. This view allows us to look at ourselves beyond psychiatric and diagnostic categories and factor the aftershocks of inter-generational ordeals.
French sociologist Émile Durkheim was the earliest proponent of collective conscience and collective memory. Cataclysmic events occurring during a time period have the power to shape and direct our lived experiences as a collective. At the root of this awareness is an understanding that beyond tangible losses like those of life, livelihoods, home, land and acquired belongings, collective trauma also signals what is referred to as a crisis of meaning.
If every national identity document we have collected meticulously is no longer a proof of citizenship, then what does it mean to inhabit this land of our birth on which several generations of our own have lived and died?
My very existence is at stake if I don’t have what is termed ontological security – a sense of safety to exist without being leashed by shadowy fears. A sense of possibility for hope and happiness within reach in the arc of life.
Collective trauma can allude to a group or a demographic’s mental representation of an event, a phase or a set of repeated experiences that causes targeted communities to face devastating losses, feel helpless and victimized while sharing a common and often deepening wound.
The ongoing protests in India have triggered repressed stressors that several communities in this country experience due to their religion, caste, class and gender. Turkish Cypriot psychiatrist Vamık Volkan characterizes such a state as an ‘invisible spider’s web’.
The Constant Haunting
A client of mine instantly resonated with this analogy as he described how he had stopped going out at night and was hounded by nightmares about how his parents didn’t have birth certificates or that his relatives would end up in a detention camp. He describes a vicious gravity taking hold of his whole body and pinning him to the floor at night as he considers again and again what it means to be Indian and Muslim at the same time. He then speaks about attending the protests and reminds himself of how he still is ensconced within the realm of specific privileges as an urban, educated man who has certain options available to him.
He often cries during sessions while talking about what he imagines it must be like for people in rural areas who have gone unheard and unseen for several years while being brutalized by the very people stationed to protect them.
This is not hard to understand given that we are currently bombarded with violent and unsettling imagery from across the country. We can’t escape it or turn it off. The human brain processes incoming sensory information with the help of two circuits: precognitive and post-cognitive. Post-cognitive circuit activates the brain's higher executive functions including complex reasoning, logic, decision-making, social awareness and behavior regulation. Pre-cognitive or limbic circuit is responsible for emotions, memories and reactions. Its job is to scan and instantly respond to danger. It has a binary response system and can’t afford to dive into deeper assessments. The limbic system's evolutionary purpose was instant safety and survival. It works on what is called the valence-arousal model. Valence in psychology denotes the positive or negative affect of an object, space, event, individual, dynamic, structure. Arousal is our response to valence.
Here is an example - As a woman walking alone at night through a dark alley, I might sense negative valence if I hear footsteps behind me. My precognitive circuit's immediate goal is safety so it feels ‘aroused’ to action in the face of perceived danger and has to opt for either fighting back, fleeing or in the absence of any options, freezing into non-action.
What Happens to Our Brains in Times of Trauma?
When we experience trauma, whether directly or indirectly, we end up with what is called ‘hyperarousal’. Hyperarousal is when we experience extreme dissonance or agitation due to a traumatic event, its memory or dealing with a high probability of its recurrence. Trauma survivors experience it when they are triggered.
Our emotional responses are then dictated by a state of hyperarousal. During traumatic events, bursts of adrenaline — released in an attempt to power the body to flee — activate a part of the limbic system (precognitive) called amygdala, leading to highly specific and isolated sensory fragments to be vividly preserved in the memory and often recalled.
Watching horrific videos of people being dragged around or being shot at is a form of vicarious trauma. We may not be present at the place of the occurrence but we are engaged and it impacts us. We can barely comprehend what it is like for those who are experiencing this on ground.
Among the few ways in which collective trauma finds healing is the manifestation of collective compassion and care. We have to learn to hold space for each other without always knowing how to move forward. Several people have spoken to me about how attending protests has been simultaneously disrupting and healing for them.
It is a revelation of how strong the human will is when clients with sharp social anxiety and agoraphobia have come in for therapy just so they can prepare to show up at their local protest sites.
There is an element of finding support among strangers even as a lot of young folk are dealing with alienation, isolation or even outright ostracizing from their own families because they can no longer hold their tongue against the bigotry at the dinner table.
A common refrain suggests that there are no innocent bystanders. We are being called to engage, participate and reimagine what it means to live, feel and grow freely in this world.
Political philosopher and psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon had declared that “each generation must discover its mission, fulfill or betray it, in relative opacity.” We need a persistent kind of empathetic courage woven into our vulnerability so we don’t lose sight of what we want to preserve and what we wish to abolish.
Of course, any struggle is accompanied by periods of exhaustion, doubt and sometimes, a very strong desire to give into hopelessness. This is worsened when those on whom we once counted for support or whose presence should have yielded stability and peace of mind mock our efforts towards bettering the world.
It is hard when you are told you are too naive or young to know any better. That your idealism is an illusion. It is harder to deal with these things when they come out of the mouths of mothers and fathers and childhood friends and university professors; people you chose to trust. In some cases, we have to assess if the question at hand is one of conflict or abuse. We can initiate conversations and try to explain what we stand for if the person at the other end is not abusive or willfully toxic. If they are, it is best to build boundaries to avoid further emotional turbulence. However, it is as important to not shy away from picking some close verbal battles and blaze forth, heels clicking because communication does have the power to change minds and bring people closer to understanding each other.
Yes, you will encounter breakdowns and disappointmentsl but we are called on to persevere, to take rest so we can return and keep progressing forth.
One of my favorite poets, Gwendolyn Brooks, wrote the following lines in “The Second Sermon on the Warpland” —
"It is lonesome, yes. For we are the last of the loud.
Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind."
(Scherezade Sanchita Siobhan is a clinical psychologist, community catalyst and author.)
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