Evolutionarily, fear plays an important role in our survival. It helps us differentiate between a safe situation and a threatening one, quickly measure the size of the threat, and plan our fight-or-flight response. During fearful situations, we activate our defence mechanisms in order to avoid the visible or invisible predator.

Over the past few months, the world has been grappling with an “invisible” enemy: Covid-19. In some ways, we have been using our usual fight (herd immunity) or flight (social distancing) strategies, both of which require immense collective effort. The enduring nature of this fear has the potential of creating a generational trauma. Historical tragedies such as World War II or India’s Partition are considered generational traumas whose impact is carried forward for decades in the form of stories and images.

Trauma could be caused due to a state of prolonged anxiety. It thrives on feelings of betrayal, hopelessness, uncertainty, helplessness, panic, and most importantly loss. It could be loss of life, or of a job, or of structure, or simply loss of crucial time. Literature on trauma shows that it is especially difficult to develop tolerance for loss that is ambiguous. And sometimes, these psychological wounds could be worse when the source of pain is unknown, like in the case of this pandemic, where the world is struggling with unanswered, perhaps unanswerable questions.

The shape of trauma

For centuries, human beings have had an inherent desire of conjuring up images to rationalise an unpleasant presence, such as ghosts for example. While we call Covid-19 an “invisible” ghost, advertisements, social media, and awareness campaigns have been giving a shape or an image to this deadly virus. It looks unpleasant and has ugly spikes. The corona helmet, Yamraj on streets, overcrowded cemeteries, overworked doctors and graphics illustrating number of deaths being cases in point.

These images and figures are perhaps well-intentioned – they raise awareness and we know that fear is needed to evoke an avoidance response – but they also have mental health consequences. We are giving a face to an invisible ghost, which is becoming a part of our social memory, potentially building our own episodic generational trauma.

Gina Nordini, in her article Haunted by History, describes this pattern as media-induced secondary trauma, one which we may not directly experience but nonetheless can have profound psychological implications. Images have a special power of making fear more real, bringing it into the realm of our perception. In addition to the public, journalists also experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after frequent exposure to traumatic images in the newsroom.

Karen Engel in her book on trauma in history, Seeing Ghosts, argued that 9/11 was intended for a visual impact. It has stayed in our memories not only because of lives lost, but also because of its haunting imagery.

A street in Mumbai. Credit: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

Coronavirus has been given an easy access to our psyche, our fears, and our nightmares. In the past few weeks there has been an increased mention of nightmares and bizarre dreams on social media. Dreams are a representation of our mental state. Invisible and abstract threats and trauma often take on vivid images and meanings, affecting our sleep patterns.

Deirdre Barrett, who does research on dreams, recently conducted a study at Harvard University on coronavirus-related dreams. She reported that along with seeing that they contracted the virus, participants dreamt about metaphorical elements such as bugs, monsters, zombies, and mass shooters, etc. Therefore, while the virus may attack the body, related thoughts and imagery permeates the inner corridors of our thought process.

During this pandemic, we are living in a renewed awareness of our mortality and constant worry about our loved ones. It induces guilt of potentially being a carrier and causing harm to others. During or post a traumatic episode, people may experience survivor’s guilt of not being able to do enough to save loved ones or guilt of not being able to say goodbye. These are complex emotions and are unfortunately here to stay as we carry on our fight with this pandemic.

Time will tell whether we recall this episode as an instigator of generational trauma, but arguably the footprints can already be seen. It is, therefore, important to acknowledge the influence of these emotions on our wellbeing. As we anticipate long-term impact of events happening today, regulating frequency and nature of visual media consumption, having predictability in routine during uncertain times, seeking and providing support, and finding safe havens with trusting individuals may facilitate emotional health.

It is important to realise that despite living in isolation, there is a “shared recognition” of this experience, providing us an immense opportunity to heal society through collective action.

Nishtha Lamba is a mental health researcher, currently a senior lecturer at Middlesex University, and holds a PhD in Psychology from University of Cambridge.