This is a hard time for many of us. With the recent events of police brutality and violence on Black individuals, these events have prompted a movement that’s happening not only in the US, but all around the world.
These events, as well as the effects of these events afterwards, have left a mark on mental health of many individuals. We will be exploring some of them, particularly trauma, as well as ways to heal.
Trauma is when a person experiences an event that makes them feel like their life has been threatened, in extreme danger, or unsafe. These events can range from witnessing a violent attack, to feeling a high risk of getting ill from coronavirus, to experiencing a car accident. Traumatic events can differ in its intensity and also effects.
Racial trauma, or race-based traumatic stress can result from major experiences of racism (or witnessing events) such as hate crimes, police violence, threats of harm or death threats, racial harassment, or workplace discrimination. The acts of police brutality on Black lives can be considered a traumatic event for their families, friends, and the Black community as a whole.
Racial trauma can also be the result of a build-up of many small occurrences, such as everyday discrimination and subtle aggressive acts (called microaggressions). This means that even if a person has not witnessed or experienced a “big” traumatic event such as a sexual assault or a serious natural disaster, someone can still experience the effects of trauma because of the build-up of lots of “small” events.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Racial trauma is known to lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is not just the shell-shock that soldiers get when they return to war, but can manifest from major experiences of racism or subtle racist acts over time.
Every person that experiences PTSD may look different. People react very differently to different events and triggers. The symptoms of PTSD include: intense feelings of distress, sadness or anxiety, physical reactions such as nausea, sweating, headaches, or a pounding heart, invasive, upsetting memories of a tragedy, and flashbacks (feeling like the trauma is happening again).
PTSD also causes nightmares, a loss of interest in life and daily activities, emotional numbness and feeling detached from others, and having a hopeless outlook on the future. PTSD also causes someone to avoid certain activities, feelings, thoughts, or places that remind them of the trauma. It is also a sign of PTSD to have difficulty remembering aspects of a trauma, a phenomenon called dissociating.
Racial trauma has intergenerational effects, which means it gets embedded in one’s genetics and passed down through generations. Therefore, the Black community has not only experienced the trauma of these events of police brutality on members of their community, but also trauma that has been passed down from generation to generation through slavery and oppression. These intergenerational effects can cause someone to be vulnerable for depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Intergenerational trauma can also make someone suppress their emotions through unhealthy methods. This type of trauma can also lead people to develop more aggressive tendencies, and this trait can also be passed down through families.
Healing from Trauma
There are ways you can heal from trauma. Some of these include:
- Understanding of your own triggers and symptoms: Due to the nature of historical trauma, these are likely different for every person.
- Being aware of the signs of trauma in your body
- Therapy for individualized care: A professional can help and guide someone through using methods such as trauma-informed mindfulness, EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), narrative therapy, etc.
- Self-care: Make sure to do things that give you rest and energy. This could mean talking regular walks, exercising, making sure you sleep and eat well, doing things that you enjoy, and doing what honours your body and what it needs.
- Check in with yourself every day: Ask yourself: How am I feeling today? What sensations am I feeling in my body? Try to determine how you can honour these sensations.
- Boundaries: Try limiting your news intake, as images of the trauma (such as videos circulating around of the violent acts and graphic images) can be retraumatizing. Take breaks from social media. You can also set boundaries on conversations that you have. If you feel like you can’t handle a conversation about this hard topic right now, you can say, “I would love to talk to you but I cannot have this conversation right now. Can we talk about something else?”
- Useful coping skills such as grounding: In times of anxiety, think about: 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you touch, 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you can taste. This will bring you back into the present moment. Repeat as necessary.
- Meditation: Use apps such as Headspace, Calm, or Insight Timer. Mindfulness meditations are great for calming, regulating your emotions, but also empathizing with the Black community during this time (compassion-focused mindfulness). Mindfulness meditations are great because it is a space that provides you to be present and non-judgmental of yourself
How to Support a Friend Who is Struggling
One of the biggest predictors of developing PTSD is when someone immediately invalidates trauma right after it happens, or doesn’t believe them. This is why it’s so important to believe someone who has said that they have experienced a traumatic event, validate them, and listen to them. Show them that you care.
As hard as it can be, try not to give them advice. Although you might be tempted to try and “fix” their problems, all they would like is a space to listen. Listen to them and listen intently – empathize with them and do not be distracted.
Be conscious about placing added burden on them, as a traumatized person. Although your feelings matter and are valid, if they have been experiencing a lot of suffering and trauma, now’s not the time to tell them you feel sad or guilty. Don’t ask them what you should do to educate yourself about racism – there are lots of resources online available, and this only adds to the burden of what they are going through right now. Seek other, non-Black friends out to support you with your emotions.
Check up on them. Instead of saying “how are you doing?”, try sending them a note saying that you’re thinking of them and that you care about them. You can also ask them how you can personally support them in big or small ways. You might choose to say that there’s no pressure to respond, so that you don’t put any burden on them.
Take care of yourself, too! These events might be triggering, traumatic, or upsetting to you. It’s normal to feel grief, anger, shame, or guilt right now. Self-care is important during this time, and the better you can help heal your own mental health, the better you can show up for others during this hard time.