As Black women, racial trauma is a part of our daily lives. Whether it’s being followed around in a store, not being called back for a job because we don’t have a “white sounding name” or brutalized by police, racism is a constant. The chronic and traumatic nature of it has a significant impact on Black women’s mental health.
Racism is a form of oppression — prolonged cruel or unjust treatment — and the effects of it have been shown to produce symptoms similar to those seen in folks with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, even in the absence of a known traumatic event (1, 2, 3).
These symptoms include: depression, anxiety, dissociation, hypervigilance, reluctance to interact with or general distrust of white people, and hopelessness (4, 5). There can also be somatic symptoms, like: headaches, digestive issues, difficulty sleeping, aches and pains, and cognitive impairments such as memory recall (6). These somatic symptoms occur because our memories and experiences exist in both our brains and our bodies.
The body is a container for all experience and many of our experiences are stored physiologically, unintegrated into the higher processing areas of the brain (7). This holds true for racism and racial trauma as well as other traumatic experiences — living within systems of racism and oppression don’t just affect Black folks’ lived experience in the world, it also affects our physiology (8).
The ways in which trauma affects the body vary per person. Some Black folks may experience anxiety and headaches, while others experience pain and depression. There are, however, five ways racial trauma affects the body that are quite common.
Trauma happens in the body. It is the body’s response to an event or series of events that it perceives to be threatening or dangerous. The response can be one of “fight or flight” or it can be one of disconnection from the body, or somatoform dissociation — “a reduction or complete loss of sensory perception and/or loss of motor control as well as involuntary perception of sensory, motor, and/or pain symptoms” (9).
While disconnection or dissociation can be scary and is often perceived as a negative response. It’s important to note that this response is a strategic coping mechanism. The body is responding, automatically, in a way that feels protective in the moment. Since racism is a persistent threat that overwhelms the body and nervous system and takes away our bodily autonomy, it makes sense that our bodily response could be one of dulled senses, decreased vitality or feelings of aliveness, and disconnecting from reality.
Racism is both interpersonal and systemic. This means that Black folks experience racism from the folks we interact with on a daily basis and this racism will be upheld within the systems that are in place to maintain order and structure within our society.
Experiencing racism in such a pervasive way can result in hypervigilance, or an increased alertness. Black folks may feel as though they are always looking out for danger or waiting for the next racist situation to occur. This hypervigilance occurs because Black folks aren’t feeling safe in their bodies and/or their environment.
In Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, Dr. Joy Degruy describes anger as “one of the most pronounced behavior patterns” associated with racism and systemic oppression. Degruy also explains that the anger many Black folks feel is due to working twice as hard as white folks, only to be blocked from reaching our goals every step of the way.
The anger we feel as Black folks is a normal response to being told to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, then undermined, exploited, and/or killed by the institutions and systems that govern our society.
When we experience a traumatic event, or series of events, our bodies respond and in most instances, we don’t have control over the way in which the body chooses to respond. It is a physiological response that happens automatically. This response is most commonly referred to as the “fight, flight, or freeze” nervous system response.
The goal of this automatic response is survival and the body doesn’t always respond rationally when in survival mode. It may instead respond in ways we’ve responded in the past. Even after the situation has occurred, we may find ourselves relying on older patterns of behavior that we thought we left behind. In situations where we feel threatened and unsafe, we may be unable to respond rationally, which limits our ability to choose a different response. In order to recognize and implement different choices and options for coping, we first need to feel safe enough for our nervous system to move away from the sympathetic activation of “flight, flight, or freeze.” (10)
Many of us have heard that depression is caused by an imbalance of neurochemicals, like dopamine and serotonin. There are, however, other reasons why depression occurs.
One of these is described as “The Behavioral Shutdown Model of Depression.” This idea, presented by Gregg Henriques Ph.D., described depression as a response to long-term chronic stress. In this model, the body shuts down after being in a state of “fight or flight” for an extended period of time — the body can only maintain the energy, activation, and hormone production needed to stay in this state for so long. Once it has reached its limit, the body begins to shut down. In many cases, we experience this as depression (11, 12).
If depression is viewed as a gendered and racialized symptom of ongoing systemic racism and oppression (13,14), this theory could very well explain the rates of depression among black women — it is estimated that the depression rate among black women is fifty percent higher than that of white women (15).
Since systemic racism and oppression are threats that are ever-present, it’s not possible to fully heal from racial trauma. What we can do, however, is develop resources for coping.
One of these ways of coping is to savor spaces and interactions that allow us to feel safe in our bodies. We won’t ever feel 100 percent safe since the threat of racial violence is ever-present. However, as a Black woman and a dance/movement psychotherapist, I believe we can learn to regulate our nervous systems (alone or within community) enough to increase the options we have for coping with the racist world that we live in.
If you’re a Black woman and would like to explore how it feels to increase capacity and bodily autonomy using movement, feel free to join The Expressive Movement Support Circle. You can find more information on that 4-week program here.