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What is a Collective Disturbance?

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Most of the time when we talk about trauma, our minds go to individual trauma: the trauma that we or someone we know has personally experienced.

Some people might share their trauma with someone else, like a sibling. But there are also many collective experiences of trauma, such as systemic racism, an environmental disaster, or a school shooting.

In each of these instances, the communities affected experience collective trauma. Today, we’re going to explore a unique type of collective trauma known as a collective disturbance.

Defining a Collective Disturbance

A collective disturbance is a type of collective trauma. During a collective disturbance, strong emotions persist after the initial source of trauma has passed. When left unprocessed and disconnected from the original source, these strong emotions become attached to unrelated figures, interactions, or events.

While a similar phenomenon can happen in our interpersonal lives, collective disturbances refer to this happening on a community-wide level.

An Example of a Collective Disturbance

Let’s imagine a scenario where employees are carrying negative feelings towards those in power. Most people are vaguely aware of their dissatisfaction, but the community does not address these feelings. No one feels safe enough to express their feelings openly.

Many employees simply accept that their dissatisfaction is a “part of the job” and avoid taking time to reflect on where their frustration stems from. For the most part, these feelings are entirely disconnected from the true source: the people in power.

At this organization, conflict among employees is very common. Employees tend to blame each other and become upset easily. They feel as though their voices are not heard or valued by their fellow employees.

In this collective disturbance, the feelings are stemming from the way those in positions of power treat those with less power. However, the feelings become removed from the original source and redirected onto the coworkers.

To solve this issue, the organization will need to identify the feelings, identify the original source, make the situation transparent, and work towards healing together.

How to Heal from a Collective Disturbance

Depending on the collective disturbance, the healing journey can vary. However, the steps to start healing generally look the same.

Identify the Strong Feelings

The first step in remedying a collective disturbance is to name the feelings. At Chefalo Consulting, we say, “Name It. Tame it.” Naming our feelings allows us to process and “tame” them, so they don’t control our behavior.

Using a feeling wheel can help employees pinpoint the exact feelings they experience at work. Common feelings we see at work include:

  • frustration

  • disappointment

  • guilt or shame

  • powerlessness

  • grief and loss

  • betrayal

  • worthless

  • threatened

  • overwhelmed

  • worried

Identify the True Source of Those Feelings

Sometimes, there is one problem that everyone seems to complain about. This one thing is the apparent source of all problems at work. But there is usually a problem behind the problem.

By pinpointing the true source of the feelings, we redirect those emotions to their proper source. This then allows us to process the emotions appropriately.

To discover the true source of emotions, organizations may want to:

  • host a trauma-informed professional to interview employees and leaders

  • hold all-staff meetings to address and explore emotions at work

  • practice holding community meetings

In this stage, it’s important to validate any feelings that come up. Having a mindset that there are no wrong feelings allows us to hold space for whatever emotions are present.

Approach the Issue with Transparency

Healing from a collective disturbance is a process. It doesn’t happen after just one meeting. As organizations work to heal from a collective disturbance, it’s important to prioritize transparency and clear communication.

When everyone is informed, they understand what the next steps are, why they have chosen those next steps, and what the desired outcomes are, people are united by that common goal. Transparency also ensures that no one feels left out of the loop.

Heal Together as a Community

After identifying the emotions, the cause, and the plan, it’s time to enact that plan. Healing together as a community might require an apology, an organizational safety plan, or other trauma-informed tools.

There’s no one right way to heal as a community, and the tools and resources that are best for one organization may not be the best ones for another. This is why we recommend customized trauma-informed implementation plans to address specific areas of need.

Final Thoughts: Have You Ever Been a Part of a Collective Disturbance?

Experiencing a collective disturbance can be uncomfortable or confusing—especially when you realize that your strong emotions towards one person or event are disconnected.

Can you think of a time when you may have experienced a collective disturbance or a transfer of your emotions from one event to another?

If you want to discuss this topic, leave a comment below with your thoughts or questions. Or bring your ideas to Intentional Conversations in February, where you’ll have a chance to join our trauma-informed community.

Intentional Conversations are free, 90-minute networking sessions for those interested in the trauma-informed framework. We will meet on the 1st and 3rd Monday of each month at 12 PM EST from February to April. Reserve your seat here.


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