What is Psychological Trauma?
Psychological trauma is an emotional reaction that can occur after experiencing or hearing about a distressing or life-threatening event. Trauma is subjective and is based solely on the interpretation of the survivor. What many people think of when they hear the word trauma is one time incidents like mass shootings, rape, natural disasters, violence and accidents. However, trauma also includes responses to more chronic and repetitive experiences such as discrimination, urban violence, or hearing about distressing events. Specifically, racial trauma and racial battle fatigue are also examples of chronic and repetitive trauma experiences. For example personal or vicarious encounters with racism contribute to chronic stress and traumatic responses causing psychological trauma and stress-based reactions. The steady stream of violent images, micro/macroaggressions, and racial violence and injustice on the TV and in social media, coupled with the everyday abuses of discrimination and exclusion, compound trauma.
When a traumatic event occurs it is common for a person to feel emotionally, cognitive and physically overwhelmed. It is normal for individuals who experience trauma to feel increased anxiety, fear, hypervigilance and changes in mood. What many people do not think about when thinking about a stress reaction is the feeling of helplessness that is commonly associated with trauma and the changes in how one views and experiences their world. Other common symptoms include increased vigilance, suspicion, increased sensitivity to threats, heightened sensitivity to being disrespected and shamed, avoidance, dissociation, depression, fatigue, difficulty sleeping and flashbacks.
What is Racial Trauma?
It is clear that racial discrimination is linked to negative mental health outcomes. Unfortunately, racial micro-aggressions are used today and is a more subtle form of racism. Racial micro-aggressions are hurtful comments that “convey hostile, derogatory, and/or invalidating meanings to people of color (Comas-Díaz, 2016). It is important to recognize that racial discrimination is not merely a negative experience but is a race-based traumatic stressor that triggers trauma responses in people who experience racism. More specifically, racial trauma refers to the “events of danger related to real or perceived experience of racial discrimination, threats of harm and injury, and humiliating and shaming events, in addition to witnessing harm to other ethnoracial individuals because of real or perceived racism” (Comas-Díaz, 2016).
Trauma reactions such as increased vigilance, heightened sensitivity, intrusive and painful memories, burnout and irritability, dissociation, and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety are a common response to racial trauma. Race-based traumatic stress trauma differs from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in that victims are exposed to constant racial microaggressions (Comas-Díaz, 2016). While the content of the traumatic experience(s) may differ, the trauma responses are similar. The frequency, intensity, and pervasiveness of racial stereotypes, racial bias, and racial discrimination produce emotional and psychological distress as well as physiological stress reactions. Altogether, these racial traumas occur over and over again, resulting in what is termed racial battle fatigue. Racial battle fatigue is just that—- fatigue from hearing, seeing, and experiencing incessant racism and racial discrimination. Because individuals who face discrimination experience trauma symptoms similar to war veterans who experience PTSD symptoms, the racial “battle fatigue” occurs. This imagery connotes the arduous uphill battle and exhaustion that individuals and groups of people who face racial discrimination experience on a daily basis. If not dealt with, racial battle fatigue can lead to serious mental health problems and severe psychological distress.
What is Identity-Related Trauma?
There is a link between a traumatic exposure and one’s identity. Any verbal or nonverbal demeaning, negative, belittling, biased, and prejudiced communication (be it at the individual or systemic level) can contribute to one feeling overwhelmed, which can in turn lead to an inability to adequately cope. It is possible that a traumatic event occurs as the result of how you describe your identity. For example, gender and sexual minority groups may be marginalized and face recurring systemic and individual discrimination simply because of their gender or sexual identity. It is also important to know that a traumatic experience can negatively impact one’s identity and lead to a shift in identity and self-esteem. In other words, one’s sense of self can be altered because one has experienced identity-related prejudice or discrimination. For example, an individual who experiences recurring prejudice or discrimination because of their identified faith and religious practices may begin to view themselves more negatively, which can lead to decreased self-esteem and subsequent shifts in their identity.
Understanding and fostering a healthy sense of identity builds resiliency in one’s life and can improves one’s ability to cope with stressful or traumatic experiences. Some examples of identities include:
- Sexual minority groups including those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning
- Religious or faith-based minority groups
- First generation college students
- Individuals with a developmental, physical, or intellectual disability
- Individuals who have experienced inconsistent or unstable relationship patterns within significant and long-lasting relationships
Trauma is hard to deal with and no one should do it alone. When trying to cope and manage trauma it is important to know what poor coping skills can look like. Some signs of unhealthy coping is increased aggression, avoidance, alcohol and drug use to manage pain and danger of trauma, isolation, and engaging in behaviors that can lead to re-traumatization.
There is no one right way to react so it is important that you be aware and accept what you are thinking and feeling. When dealing with trauma it is important to try a range of coping skills and find which one is most helpful and supportive to you. Seek support: This means seeking guidance and support from others who can help facilitate positive coping.
- Talk to those you trust, including friends, family, colleagues and spiritual leaders. Speak to others who may have similar reactions to you which can be normalizing and validating
- Find someone who has the ability to listen to your perspective, validate your experiences and communicate an understanding of race and racism from social, political and historical contexts (you may find White allies as well as People of Color who are able to have this dialogues that is growth fostering)
- Mindfulness practices, meditation, and prayer
- Painting, drawing, singing, dancing, other activities that assist with processing emotions through expression and body movement
- Engage in activities that make you feel empowered and seek to promote change
- Stay connected to family, friends, community, neighborhood and spiritual communities
- Join a support group
- Participate in individual or group therapy
- Share wisdom and support with loved one to create collective strength
- Participate in local groups, protests, organizations, mentoring and other acts of empowerment and resistance
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