- “Healing Collective Trauma” by Thomas Hübl is an insightful and practical guide to addressing and healing intergenerational and cultural wounds, shedding light on the path to a more interconnected and compassionate world.
- Dive into this book to discover how we can collectively heal our societal wounds and work towards a more harmonious and empathetic future.
Healing Collective Trauma (2020) examines how trauma can be shared between individuals and across generations. Drawing on contemporary trauma research and ancient traditions of mysticism, it proposes a framework for recognizing and healing these collective traumas.
Introduction: A new perspective on trauma.
Table of Contents
In recent years, thinkers and scientists like Gabor Maté, Bessel van der Kolk, and Judith Herman have revolutionized the way society thinks about trauma. We now understand that trauma doesn’t simply affect the psyche – it can rewire the body’s nervous system, and change the chemistry and functioning of the brain. We also understand that in the wake of mass-scale traumatic events, trauma can affect entire identity groups and communities – a phenomenon known as collective trauma.
In this time of political turmoil and intensifying climate change, collective trauma impacts a range of groups across every strata of society. It’s imperative that we learn to understand the myriad aftereffects of collective trauma, learn to recognize the ways in which collective trauma shapes the world we live in, and learn to create opportunities for collective healing.
This summary to Healing Collective Trauma by Thomas Hübl brings together some of the latest thinking on trauma, collective trauma, and the best healing practices for both, informed by science and by spirituality.
Trauma impacts us mentally and physically
Humans are powerfully resilient. Think about it – in the millions of years since we’ve been walking the earth, as a group we’ve overcome countless traumas: earthquakes, famines, wars, plagues. But just because we’re survivors, that doesn’t mean these traumas don’t also take a significant toll. Contemporary research into trauma uncovers just how lasting and damaging the effects of trauma can be when they’re left unaddressed. So, let’s take a brief look at how trauma works.
After a traumatic event, we can become either hyperactive or hypoactive – in other words, we turn to the primal fight-flight response or we freeze. Following the event, our nervous systems will be impacted, distorting the ways we assimilate and process memories related to the event. What’s more, stimuli that mirror the event in any way – for example, flashing lights and loud noises recalling war zone conditions – can trigger mental and physical flashback. When traumatized individuals are allowed to process and heal from their traumas, they can successfully metabolize the traumatic events. When their trauma goes unacknowledged or untreated, they may experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
People with PTSD can experience symptoms like anxiety, hypervigilance, and poor impulse control, and many others.
A type-1 trauma is a one-off event. A type-2, or “complex” trauma, is actually a series of ongoing traumatic events – a victim of chronic child abuse or domestic violence, for example, experiences complex trauma.
Trauma, and especially complex trauma, that occurs during childhood can have particularly severe effects. These traumas, that occur when the brain is still developing, can hinder healthy psychosocial development. Child victims of complex trauma may have difficulty forming healthy attachments, self-soothing, regulating their emotions, tolerating stress, and using their executive function, among a host of other potential difficulties.
Many of the debilitating symptoms trauma-sufferers experience actually have a valid evolutionary function. A soldier who experiences hyper-vigilance after active duty may find themselves irritable and depleted from the vast reserves of energy required to maintain this state of heightened alertness at all times. By the same token, on the battlefield, where every stray sound or flicker of movement represents a real threat, hypervigilance is crucial for survival. The body intends this hypervigilance to be a lifesaving strategy. So, while the negative symptoms of trauma are felt in the mind and the body, these symptoms derive from our hardwired drive to survive and overcome.
Trauma can’t be eradicated. It’s part of our universe. It’s part of us. The challenge isn’t to let the darkness of trauma consume our present and blot out our vision for the future, rather to learn to accept this darkness and synthesize it into a transformative force. We can begin by supplementing our scientific understanding of trauma with a more spiritual perspective which we’ll explore in the next section.
Trauma prevents the formation of healthy energy structures
So far in this discussion of trauma, we’ve spoken about the body and about the mind. But what about the soul?
The soul is light and intelligence downloaded into life – the body is a conductor through which the soul’s potential can be developed and channeled. The soul is also a spark of a broader sacred dimension – a dimension that we might call life – that comes alive in each of us. Through this spark, we each share in a collective code of humanness, both genetic and geographic.
When we haven’t fully explored our own inner sacred dimension, we often see ourselves as bound to the present. The past lies, unintegrated and unprocessed, behind us – not only that, we project its dark contours ahead of us, as a road down which the future lies. In this future, we are fated to repeat, over and over, the mistakes and traumas of the past. But while our bodies may feel tied to this horizontal conception of time, the soul is attuned to a vertical plane. Our souls are poised, if we let them, to soar upward into the future’s wild potential, untethered from past traumas.
We can understand the universe in terms of space, energy, and structure. Space encompasses outer physical space and subtle space, the unseen inner space of consciousness. Springing from space is energy – comprising intelligence, creativity, insight. In certain traditions this is known as prana or chi. Structures are the pathways that channel and direct energy.
One such structure is the body’s central nervous system, which directs a ceaseless flow of information and data from the body to the brain and from the brain to the body. More than simply directing information, though, it also stores information – it’s a library of our experience. Unhealed trauma is stored in the library in shadow – it disrupts the flow of the nervous system, even if we don’t register its presence ourselves.
Another key set of structures for directing energy are consciousness patterns. When we’re young, we’re driven by the energy of curiosity, which propels us out into the world, and fear, which compels us to turn inward and seek comfort – usually from our parents. The way our parents respond to and acknowledge these drives gives rise, through repetition, to learned consciousness structures. Ideally, children learn to feel safe exploring their curiosity because their parents have provided comfort and modeled emotional regulation in times of fear. When this comfort is absent, dysfunctional consciousness patterns become set – a child may grow into an adult who is overly anxious and avoids attachment because they’ve had to learn how to hold their fear alone and unsupported. An inability to feel safe in the world can later manifest as addiction, fixation, avoidance, or a need to place others at an emotional distance.
We’re filled with our own innate energy – but so is everyone around us. When we can attune our energy to that of other people – at an emotional, mental, and physical level – we create lasting, meaningful connections. But trauma can obstruct these connections. Trauma fractures our relationship to ourselves. Without a secure connection to the self, we can’t hope to form grounded connections to others.
You can learn to foster attuned relationships with others by consciously trying to bring your mind, body, and emotions into coherence with those of another person. In order to do this, though, you must first clear space within yourself. How you clear space is a deeply personal choice – it might be through walking, meditating, or simply sitting with yourself. The more you can foster attunement with others, the more easily you’ll be able to access a multidimensional intersubjective awareness that allows you to connect with others. This capacity not only creates meaningful connections in your own life but is critical for the healing of collective trauma.
So, what is collective trauma? We’ll begin to unpack that in the next section.
Trauma can travel across groups and down generations
The traumatologist Bessel van der Kolk reminds us that trauma isn’t a story about something that happened to us – it’s a substance residing within our bodies. And, like other substances, it can be easily transmitted across communities and down generations.
Collective trauma travels along two key axes – historical trauma and intergenerational trauma. Historical trauma is a large-scale traumatic event that impacts a collective – a nation, an identity group, or a community. Examples of historical trauma include the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, slavery, and the 9/11 attacks. The reverberations of these traumas are felt among every member of the group that experienced them.
Intergenerational trauma occurs when the trauma response evoked in one person is then passed down, through learned behaviors and dysfunctional consciousness structures, from one generation to the next. An individual trauma – such as an abusive childhood – can spark a chain of intergenerational trauma. We also see patterns of intergenerational trauma manifesting in the descendants of those who’ve experienced historical trauma.
Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart has identified a set of symptoms arising in the victims of historical traumas – similar to PTSD, these symptoms, including anxiety, low self-esteem, and self-sabotaging behaviors, are grouped under the label HTR, or Historical Trauma Response. From Palestinians displaced during the 1948 Nakba to the First Nations Peoples of Canada and the USA and first-generation Holocaust survivors, this same set of symptoms recurs time and again among the collective victims of historical traumas.
To understand how trauma is both experienced collectively and transmitted through generations, let’s look at the horrific legacy of slavery. Before abolition, it was common practice for the children of enslaved people to be separated from their parents and auctioned off to be enslaved themselves. This could happen at any time, so parents were on guard constantly. Many enslaved mothers spoke negatively about their children, remarking that they were lazy or stupid. This was an adaptive strategy – clever, hardworking children were more desirable. Praising your child exposed them to danger. Yet, this once-effective adaptive strategy cemented into a behavioral pattern that was passed down from one generation to the next. Dr. Joy DeGruy says that long after abolition, Black American parents have been reluctant to praise their children, creating an environment in which it’s difficult for children to develop healthy self-esteem or functional attachments to their parents. This is simply one among the host of appalling ways the trauma of slavery has reverberated through generations of Black Americans.
Trauma’s inheritance is undeniably physical as well as behavioral. A study conducted by the Max Planck Institute in Munich found that, not only did the descendants of Holocaust survivors report a higher than average incidence of PTSD symptoms compared to the general population but also the makeup of their FKBP5 gene – the gene that regulates stress – was fundamentally altered.
We can see, undoubtedly, that trauma transmits across affected groups and down generations. When we zoom out and apply a more mystical lens to the phenomenon of collective trauma, we can also see how contemporary culture has been shaped by a veritable avalanche of both historical traumas and the ongoing traumas being enacted across the globe presently – from climate change to war to disease. Victims of unhealed and/or inherited trauma can both project their traumatized energy into the world and sometimes even recreate and reenact the conditions of their initial trauma onto others, perpetuating this vicious cycle. Healing individual trauma isn’t enough. In a traumatized world, we need to work to heal collective trauma. How do we do that? As a collective.
Collective trauma demands a collective solution
We all live with trauma, some of us more acutely than others. But whether we’re victims of trauma, survivors of complex trauma, experiencers of collective trauma, inheritors of intergenerational trauma, or simply existing in a society irrevocably shaped by intricately interlocking traumas, we all experience to some degree or another, the negative impact of unhealed trauma.
Without discounting the deep pain and hurt caused by unhealed trauma, our healing journey could begin by acknowledging that the same structures of energy which resonate trauma among groups and down generations, might also have the power to heal. After all, it’s our deep connection and intense receptivity to other people that allows trauma to transmit between individuals in the way that it does. Imagine if those energy structures transmitted healing and light rather than trauma?
Tapping into that potential allows us to approach collective trauma healing in a group setting. Here, in brief, is a blueprint for how a group might be led to process and heal from a collective trauma.
The essential instrument for healing is presence. We’re never present alone – being present is being aware of the matrix of connections, both past and present, that tie us to this life. As such, it’s the first step toward attunement. The group must achieve attunement in order to fully explore their shared trauma.
Begin, then, by cohering the group, with exercises designed to spark presence and facilitate attunement. These might include meditation and relational exercises – for example a movement exercise in which participants are invited to mirror each other’s movements and gestures.
Once the group has cohered, broach the topic of trauma. Each participant will bring their own individual experience but soon the ancestral and cultural traumas they carry will begin to reverberate with the collective trauma. There’s no need for analysis or judgment here – participants simply observe what arises for themselves and for others.
As the exploration deepens, progress will follow a wave pattern, ebbing and flowing. First, a wave of group denial. Participants may begin to disengage. The energy in the room will feel heavy and dull. Rather than fighting this wave, encourage participants to notice how their bodies and minds are responding to the sharing process. If feelings of discomfort and resistance intensify, this can be a sign another wave is about to break – the wave of group eruption. Expect an outpouring of visceral memory and keen emotion.
When the group has pushed past repression and denial, then experienced the catharsis of the group eruption, it’s time to allow the Collective Voice to emerge. As participants share their experiences and observations, facilitators should gently highlight any common threads, rhythms, or motifs. Each sharing may uncover new experiences and memories in other participants, creating a ripple effect. Highlighting the Collective Voice among these ripples takes skill and sensitivity, but identifying it can open a space waiting to be filled with healing light.
Trauma lives in shadow. When we do the work of healing, we invite light in. It’s a process akin to the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which cracked ceramics are soldered together with molten gold – the piece is made whole once more, but the cracks haven’t disappeared. Instead, they are illuminated and illuminating.
Unhealed trauma impacts the body, mind, and emotions at a fundamental level. Trauma can be shared among groups and between generations. But, just as we have the capacity to experience trauma as a collective, as a collective we also have the power to heal our trauma.
About the Author
Psychology, Society, Culture
“Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds” by Thomas Hübl offers a profound exploration of the collective trauma that plagues our societies and a comprehensive guide to addressing and healing these wounds. Hübl’s work delves deep into the intergenerational and cultural aspects of trauma, providing readers with a transformative perspective and practical tools for fostering a more harmonious and interconnected world.
In this book, Hübl begins by unpacking the concept of collective trauma, emphasizing how it manifests across generations and within our cultures, perpetuating cycles of pain and suffering. He offers insights into the roots of this trauma, ranging from historical events like wars and atrocities to systemic injustices and inequalities that persist today. With remarkable clarity, he underscores the urgent need to confront and heal these wounds as a society.
The author introduces a structured process for working with collective trauma, combining psychology, spirituality, and mindfulness practices. He outlines a step-by-step approach that encourages individuals and communities to engage in deep self-reflection, empathetic listening, and collective healing rituals. Hübl demonstrates how this process can help break the chains of intergenerational suffering and foster a sense of interconnectedness.
One of the book’s standout features is its emphasis on empathy and understanding, which are crucial for addressing collective trauma. Hübl highlights the importance of creating safe spaces for individuals to share their stories, confront their pain, and feel heard and supported. He also guides readers on how to develop the capacity to bear witness to the suffering of others, cultivating compassion and promoting unity.
“Healing Collective Trauma” is a powerful and thought-provoking read, offering a roadmap for individuals and communities seeking to heal the wounds of the past and build a more harmonious future. Hübl’s writing is accessible and heartfelt, making complex concepts approachable to a broad audience.
In summary, “Healing Collective Trauma” is a transformative guide that illuminates the path to healing the intergenerational and cultural wounds that continue to shape our world. It offers a holistic approach that combines psychology, spirituality, and mindfulness, providing a valuable resource for those dedicated to the journey of healing and reconciliation.