January 28, 2022

Racial Trauma and Post-Traumatic Growth

By Doxa Zannou

Abuse & Trauma

Today, we will briefly explore what healing from racial trauma looks like through the lens of post traumatic growth, and I will challenge you to find adaptive coping mechanisms you can return to regularly. Indeed, healing is a journey wherein we make space for growth and change in the present, through mindful contemplation and embodied practices. 

What Is Post Traumatic Growth?

Post-traumatic growth posits that humans have the capacity to experience positive transformation after experiencing trauma. They can develop a wider awareness of the world, their relationships, and their own selves. They gain deeper insight into the human condition and find meaningful ways to bring healing and change to themselves and those around them.   

While resilience can sometimes be seen as an inherent trait possessed only by some, post-traumatic growth suggests that even those who may not have an innate predisposition to “bounce back,” can still find ways to achieve personal growth as well. Trauma disrupts how we view ourselves, how we view the world, and how we view other people. Trauma shapes our core beliefs and our behavioral and relational patterns and responses. 

In short, trauma is never a good thing, and it does not strengthen anyone. I say this because there is a predominant narrative that tries to paint trauma in a positive light; like a thing that is still good for us because it, “happens for a reason,” or because it, “makes us better.” I am here to categorically denounce this ideology and denounce the belief that, “everything happens for a reason.” I say this because when it comes to trauma, we cannot be so driven for meaning, that we make excuses for the people who cause harm and inflict trauma on others. Furthermore, the belief that, “what does not kill you, makes you stronger,” is often based on false ideas of fragility and toughness. Societal narratives often push stories of strength which fail to consider the damage and harm we survive. Instead, these narratives guilt-trip us into enduring even more harm and violence in the name of “survival” and “toughness.” These social scripts play out in many different facets of life and affect many different people groups. 

Racial Trauma

Specifically, when it comes to racial trauma, it mostly affects marginalized people groups. Race-based traumatic stress describes the physical, emotional, and mental pain individuals experience because of discrimination, hate crimes, racial bias, and systemic injustices. When the effects of these stressful events are not mitigated, it can lead to depression, anxiety, rumination, flashbacks, rage, low self-esteem, or somatic symptoms such as headaches, chest pains, muscle tension, and more. 

Unfortunately, in many communities, the predominant message is once again, “keep your head down and just keep going.” There is this belief that we can weather all storms because we are so strong and resilient. However, I am here to say that trauma is a poison, and if it does not kill you, it weakens you. You do not fight poison by ignoring it and going about your day. You must seek medical attention, take care of your body, and find ways to either neutralize the poison or mitigate its ravaging effects on your system. Some may find this example extreme, but my point is that trauma is poisonous for our bodies. Sometimes, we are so focused on survival that we neglect our bodies and minds, and resort to self-destructive coping mechanisms such as prolonged escapism, substance abuse, addiction, and more. While recreation and distraction are helpful, we must learn to find adaptive coping mechanisms and ways to cultivate meaning and liberation in the present. 

Three Healing Practices

Even though the roots of racial trauma spread wide and far in our society and originate from ‘trees’ planted long before we were born, there are still ways that we can practice healing in the present. If we internalize learned helplessness, we essentially give up our agency and accept defeat in a system that thrives off our compliance and hopelessness. But if we recognize our agency and find ways to ‘crack the matrix’ so to speak, we can feel revitalized, energized, and fulfilled. Change and revolutions happen when people decide to fight against the status quo. Sometimes, this means suffering in unimaginable ways. However, I want to suggest three healing practices that can alleviate suffering and bring more joy to your present circumstances. 

Expand Your Love 

Thérèse Cator said, “resilience is not about our capacity to withstand abuse… it’s about expanding our capacity to love – ourselves, one another and our Earth – so that we can transform our personal and collective futures.” This year, I want you to look around you, and identify the people who have sustained you for this long. Even if it’s just one person, they matter. I want you to delve deeper into love, rest in it, stay in it, nurture it, and welcome it wherever it can be found. Love is a healing force that is underestimated in our healing journeys. It is precisely because we experience some of our most significant traumas in the context of personal, communal, or systemic relationships that lack love, that we must find healing in relationships that embody and nurture love. 

Again, trauma disrupts and changes our self-concept, and feeds us lies that become ingrained in our core beliefs. We cannot change our core belief systems without experiencing something new, something beautiful, and something real. So, this year, I invite you to live large, and to open yourself up to safe spaces and people who want to love you well. Go where you are treasured and see how you will bloom. Equally important, I invite you to love yourself, your body, your mind, and your spirit. Write down some affirmations and recite them a hundred times if you must. Identify your strengths and amplify these in your life. 

Embody Your Self 

I invite you to embody your authentic self this year. Resma Menakem defines somatic abolitionism as a, “living, embodied anti-racist practice,” meant to heal the trauma that lives in our bodies. Hence, “the revolution will not be televised,” because it will take place in your body.  When we experience heightened levels of stress, we tend to dissociate, escape, and distract ourselves, and we often neglect or harm our bodies in the process. So, my question for you this year is, what does it look like to practice presence and mindfulness in the present? What does it look like to pay attention to the different sensations and emotions that come up in your body, and to listen to what your body is trying to tell you? Maybe it’s saying, “slow down,” or, “rest a little,” or, “enjoy this moment.” Or maybe it’s saying, “this work environment, relationship or home, is breaking you down a little more each day. How much longer will you take this?” 

In 2022, I want you to honor the truth your body brings to your awareness, and to indulge in healthy pleasure. Sit outside in the sun. Walk or run to the chirping of birds. Carve out time for physical exercise or yoga. Eat delicious, life-giving food. Spend time savoring the taste in your mouth.  Wake up and stretch. Practice deep-breathing during times of heightened anxiety. Soothe yourself. Soothe your nerves. Soothe your body. Let your nervous system heal through rest and relaxation. 

Reclaim Your Narrative 

Consider your story and your narrative. Who dictated your identity, your worth, your clothes, your habits, your jobs, and your relationships? Were there times in your life when you wanted to be true to yourself, but you were too afraid of rejection or judgement? If so, I invite you to keep digging. Who are you? Who do you want to be? What values do you want to embody in this world? How do you want to show up for yourself and for others? I want you to find your agency and reclaim it. bell hooks noted that if we need anything beyond ourselves to legitimate and validate our existence, we are already giving away our agency, which is our, “power to be self-defining.”

Sometimes, we do not believe we can change our life circumstances because the problems before us are too big. Consequently, we give in to the problems, and we even let them recruit us in various self-sabotaging techniques. This could mean engaging in behaviors or actions you know are hurting you, or it could mean avoiding the practices you know would help you change and grow in the long run. Sometimes, we want to change but we are afraid of losing what is familiar or comfortable or predictable to us. Consequently, we stay in the rut we hate, while dreaming of what our lives would look like outside this said rut. I’m here to tell you that you can get out of the rut. You have what it takes. You may not have control over the world, but you have control over yourself, and you have agency in shaping your inner world, and re-writing your story. Be creative. Fail and make mistakes. Try again and again until you find your rhythm. Keep searching for truth wherever it may be found, and sit with your questions until new chapters emerge. Your life is not over yet, and it does not have to be determined by those who will never live it. If there are “critical witnesses” in your life who do not want you to be free, identify them, and disempower their voices in your life. 

David Denborough noted that it is often helpful to find, “acknowledging witnesses,” instead. They can be friends or family members in your life today, family members in your lineage, or historical figures you look up to. What matters most is finding acknowledging witnesses who validate your experiences, who mirror your strengths, who value you, and who empower you to live boldly, freely, and abundantly. 

When we experience trauma, we may feel helpless in the face of its manifold disruptions in our lives, relationships, emotions, and so on. We may struggle to make sense of our painful experiences and move forward in a way that honors our pain. We may struggle to live in the present, and we may find it hard to accept that our bodies are no longer in the past. Racial trauma is especially exhausting and destructive because it weathers the mind, body, and spirit over a long period of time. It is not always a one-time event, but can be a culmination of events wherein we are targeted and deemed inferior simply because of the color of our skin. If you resonate with any of this and want to find practical ways to embody healing in the present, I invite you to spend time identifying three key practices you can return to this year. Think of ways in which you can embody yourself, reclaim your agency, and expand your love. Find what works for you and stick to it. 

Finally, know that you are not alone in this journey. I would be honored to walk alongside you as you work through your trauma and find ways to nurture post-traumatic growth in your life. Please give us a call to schedule an appointment today! 


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