Friday, December 18, 2020

Some thoughts on the social psychological impact of 2020: emotional dehydration and collective trauma

I've been on something of a rollercoaster of experiences the past several months and it's given me pause to think about the social psychological impact of 2020. Given the breadth of impact I think just about anyone can find something to relate to in these ideas.


Earlier this summer, after spending several months already in a form of lockdown, it struck me that I was feeling a sense of illusion. I recall discussing this with my immediate family. They too echoed similar sentiments. “Things just seem weird.” 

For all intents and purposes I’ve been a professional Sociologist for almost 25 years. I’ve spent that time doing research and in academia. I have a good eye for understanding social experiences and how they impact the sense of self. This sense of “feeling weird” was a sensation, if you will, I found unique. I found it to be beyond a similar term in the field, “anomie.”

Particularly since March 2020, there has been so much for mindful people to absorb. I say “mindful people” because I believe the psychological impact of the many stressors experienced as a result of covid-19, social unrest, and matters related to the presidential election has hit mindful people more deeply than those that live life largely with blinders. Given the limitations of my willingness to explore that in depth in this piece, let’s throw all of these largely external stressors into one bag. Now, let’s set that bag to the side knowing there is much in that bag that affects who we are. It indeed has been a very tough year for everyone.

Memory and sense of self

So much of our sense of self, even our own reality, is anchored by our memories and the patterns of our behavior. Our actions and behaviors in everyday life serve to establish the pattern of our self. In sociological social psychology there is much to be said about social experiences that impact and sustain the self. It is amidst this process of socialization where I began to find answers to why “things just seem weird.” The impact of all the stressors “in that bag” has been to chip away at the memories rooted in our psyche. While this December the holiday season will result in a sadness we have not experienced, it is also a very common experience. Mindful people will adhere to public health guidance, and many of us will not see family in our common place of gathering for the first time in our lives. The holidays this year will seem quite “weird.” They will feel that way because how we will celebrate will be far different than what our memories will remind. 

Guardrails for life

Over time our everyday habits serve to establish guardrails for our lives. These everyday experiences serve to give us perspective into our own reality. Thus the life I live over the course of a day, of several days, of a week, of several weeks, and so on firmly establish my guardrails and sense of reality. For most people this makes life comfortable. Life is predictable. It’s a stability of living. 

When guardrails fall apart nearly overnight this can be characterized as an experience of trauma. Allow me to explore this further. Before covid-19 hit, I was going into work daily. I did this generally five days a week. For a moment though, consider the varied experiences I would engage in a given work day. I would wake up, get myself prepared for work, drive to work, park in the parking lot, walk into my building, go to my office, and go to class two to three times a day. Let us not underestimate the significance of the mundane, small things we do everyday and what that means for who we are. Now, magnify that everyday experience by five days a week, by four weeks a month, by a year. One can begin to see how this predictability of daily behavior could serve to establish my guardrails of everyday life. So when the impact of covid-19 hit, daily life changed in an instant. As of writing this piece, I’ve not been in a classroom since March 2020. I’ve been onsite at my workplace for a total of 20 minutes since that time. But, my work did not stop. I did not shut down. Instead I began to install new guardrails for work, this time in the comfort of my own home. I used to go to work to work. I used to go home for comfort. Since March my home has also served as my worksite. And my home has also served as the place of schooling for three children. My home has also served as our church. The comfort of home has not much served as the comfort of home. And I think this is a reality for a lot of people. This experience has been so profound that I have begun to consider the abrupt changes in everyday life as a form of trauma. 

So what does this experience, this trauma look like for a 6 year old? For a 13 year old? For an adult? For older folks? 

I do not use this word lightly. Trauma is an extremely powerful term. Trauma is generally defined as: “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience,” and “emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may be associated with physical shock and sometimes leads to long-term neurosis.” One way to address trauma is to remove oneself from the situation, to relocate, to seek out a different environment. The difficulty doing that is regardless of where you go a similar trauma you're likely to find. The trauma I allude to above is not just my experience. It’s the experience of a lot of people. In fact some people have more experiences since March that provide even greater significance to the trauma. There’s a general collective experience going on here. Perhaps we should begin to consider the idea of a collective trauma. And, how does a society address collective trauma?

So consider the predictability of the guardrails of life. Prior to March of this year I had spent years on “building” my guardrails for work, for home, for church, for recreation, for my side business as a DJ, for how I relate to my spouse, to my children, to my family, to my friends. Each set of these guardrails was fundamentally changed in the matter of the month of March. How are we to live life without guardrails? Well, we adapt. With family and friends I’ve spoken much about the need to thrive during this crisis. Those words of advice included moving forward in one’s own way with what we are given to work with. I believe thriving requires realizing the catastrophe of the disruption of everyday life, and moving forward in ways of adaptation. This means adapting your home for work. It means doing your gatherings much more differently until it’s safe. For us that has meant using Zoom for gatherings. Adapting and thriving means building and establishing new guardrails. Adapting and thriving means doing the best you can. But it’s tiring. It’s exhausting. More recently I’ve been thinking about emotional dehydration.

In conclusion, this emotional dehydration and trauma can get better with time. A major obstacle of identifying and treating these “conditions” is the importance of time and space. The guardrails of life I mentioned earlier are anchored in our memory enhanced by time and space. So, it will get better once my work is back at work. Once my religious practice is back in a church. Once my “normal activities” can once again be resumed in normal context. Unless work, church, and my other activities completely change to a new normal, my guardrails will continue to be reduced to suggestions. So until things get back to normal, things will “just feel weird.” And we might be feeling weird for a little while longer.

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