“Collective trauma has made us who we are”
Harvard Longwood Campus workshop series invites exploration into trauma, explores core competencies of resilience
We’ve all been born into collective trauma; our work is to integrate these unhealed wounds which chronically impact our emotions, minds and bodies.
That was one of the takeaways of a recent Harvard Longwood Campus Office of Employee Development and Wellness virtual workshop series focused on building resilience through self-regulation, co-regulation and group coherence. Approximately 50 attendees, including faculty, researchers, clinicians and staff from Harvard schools and affiliated hospitals attended the three-part series in May and early June 2020.
Teaching the workshop from his home office in Tel Aviv, Thomas Hübl, an author and facilitator who has facilitated international dialogue and promoted healing around collective trauma with a special focus on the shared history of Israelis and Germans, invited participants to investigate both the sources and symptoms of trauma in their lives.
The first step, he offered, is to understand how each of us self-regulates when faced with stress. “We are used to high chronic stress levels, accumulated over decades, that we don’t even call stress anymore.” To carry this stress, we’ve suppressed the emotions that led us to this state. And to protect ourselves from the intensity of feelings stored inside, we mentally interpret our emotions, instead of expressing them and sensing how they impact our minds and bodies, said Hübl.
Ultimately, he suggested, this unresolved stress can disrupt a sense of wholeness within ourselves. “The more we pay attention to this invisible fragmentation within ourselves in our daily lives, the more we can identify and resolve these patterns before they become chronic.” Through a guided meditation on identifying emotions and sensing blocks in the body, Hübl suggested that witnessing how fragmentation appears first in oneself is an important step when trying to understand – and contribute solutions towards – larger societal disruptions and unrest.
Carrying collective trauma
“Every one of us has been born into a world that has suffered trauma over thousands of years. Collective trauma has made us who we are. The question is: where does this trauma live in myself?” he asked attendees.
In 2016, Hübl founded a non-profit organization called the Pocket Project to address these questions.
Last December, he spoke about his approach to examining systemic collective trauma in our societies and healthcare systems at Harvard Medical School‘s Talk@12 in a conversation with Bala Subramaniam, associate professor of medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Hübls’s forthcoming book “Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds” will be published in November.
“As physicians, we don’t have the structure and space to dig into trauma,” said workshop participant Kristen Schaefer, a palliative care physician at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who felt that a conversation around learning about trauma was timely for her.
“There’s a bravado about not having trauma. Psychiatrists and social workers have a culture to navigate that, but there’s a loneliness in being in another specialty that doesn’t have this rich landscape to work with trauma.” Schaefer, who has treated patients who have experienced collective trauma including Salvadorian women and residents of the Navajo reservation, has been an advocate for palliative care medical education and currently teaches a longitudinal development course for first-year medical students. The course teaches students skills to cultivate a reflective practice to accompany the rigor of their clinical training.
Like many physicians, Schaefer has juggled the strains of attending to her patients’ fears and increased needs during this time, while managing her own stress and that of her family’s. “As I’ve cared for my patients and students during the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve been seeing in myself, students, family, peers this kind of trauma. I’ve been thinking about who I can be as a teacher, colleague and physician within this framework of understanding trauma.”
Hübl’s approach, she said, was ripe with “warmth and gentleness that is not often experienced in a workshop,” adding that perhaps this is a model Harvard might emulate in introducing the discussion of trauma in its medical curricula, patient care and work spaces. “You have to really practice seeing what trauma is, and not react to it, but try to enter people’s experience of it,” she says. “Seeing others step up and name a kind of deep brokenness and then offering a format to collectively approach it feels essential to healing.”
Creating group coherence
Achieving self-regulation, said Hübl, is possible by aligning one’s emotions, thoughts, and somatic awareness. This process is aided and complemented by co-regulation, which is the process of allowing resonance to happen with another’s nervous system. “What the pandemic has taught us is that we are all interdependent. The state of a mature human being is the recognition of our interdependence.”
There are opportunities to practice this in the workplace, he pointed out, where we often face a choice: create emotional distance when we don’t want to feel people’s stress or invite them into the possibility of emotional resonance by listening (among other skills), which can then spark our true capacities as leaders.
“The latter approach, I believe, builds a much higher level of trust. But it’s more challenging because it means that I have to be willing to feel, in an authentic way, the stress of people in my environment.” As we practice this on our teams, we strengthen our relational competencies and our ability to support one another during times of stress and crisis. When larger networks of people come together to practice these relational competencies, groups can flourish and solve problems together, creating what Hübl referred to as group coherence.
In addition to the December talk on collective trauma, there are other initiatives focused on this area of research. At Harvard College, a course on the political implications of collective trauma was offered in 2016-17 by sociologist and lecturer Shai Dromi, who also attended the workshop. And for the past 40 years, the Harvard Program for Refugee Trauma at Massachusetts General Hospital has been providing services for refugees and conducting research.
After attending the workshop, the director of the program, psychiatrist Richard Mollica, said that, to him, Thomas personified a “modern-day Martin Buber,” the twentieth century philosopher who was one of Mollica’s idols when he attended Yale Divinity School while completing his psychiatry residency at Yale Medical School.
“Thomas is a charismatic visionary who has a lot to offer all of us,” shared Mollica.“His phenomenological analysis of interpersonal experience rang true to me. Certainly the patient is always saying ‘I know that you know that I know.’ Patients in my clinic are always attuned to the empathic quality of the relational experience. I wish the doctors were as sensitive.”