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Historical Trauma, PTSD, and Racism in America

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — June 30, 2020 — 3 min read
Diet, exercise, life experiences, brain chemistry, and genetics can impact your mental health. Going through a traumatic event also causes anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But did you know that there is a way you can be traumatized without experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event?

Types of Trauma

There are several types of trauma that can cause PTSD:
  • Individual Trauma: A traumatic event that happens to a single person
  • Group Trauma: A traumatic event that a group shares (e.g., a family that witnesses violence against another family member)
  • Community Trauma: A traumatic event(s) experienced by a community (e.g., a neighborhood witnesses violence against its members)
  • Historical Trauma: A series of traumatic events cause emotional harm that is transferred to the generations that follow
Black American communities have lived through historical trauma for 400 years. Racism-driven violence has caused fear that has been passed down through generations in the form of “toxic stress.”

Higher Risk of Mental Illness for Children of Trauma Survivors

Toxic stress hurts someone’s physical health and emotional well-being. There is evidence that children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors have higher resting heart rates compared to others.

This study, and many others like it, have found that the children and grandchildren of those with PTSD have a higher risk of developing mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

Imagine that the people in power intimidated your community for hundreds of years. Your great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents all experienced community, group, and individual trauma. The potential impact of this level of stress is huge.
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Police Encounters and PTSD Triggers

Historical trauma causes many Black Americans to feel afraid when they encounter police or even when they witness police violence in film. This can be true even if they haven't experienced the violence first-hand.

The responses many Black Americans have to police match the symptoms of PTSD:
  • Physical responses to triggers (e.g., feeling jumpy around police)
  • Avoiding situations that trigger your fear response (in this case, avoiding the police)
  • Experiencing nightmares or unwanted memories of the traumatic experience
  • Negative thoughts and emotions about your community

Supporting the New Civil Rights Movement When You Have PTSD

For those who have developed PTSD-like symptoms, joining in protests may be difficult. These social justice activities could lead to hostile interactions that trigger a physical or emotional response.

There are ways you can support social change without placing yourself at risk for an extreme stress reaction. Rather than go to a protest in person, you might consider:
  • Making signs for friends or family that are attending
  • Meeting up after the event to decompress
  • Wearing social justice t-shirts and items that you bought from a Black-owned business
  • Signing online petitions that support the cause
  • Attending non-protest activities for social change
  • Becoming more informed by attending virtual events, such as TED Talks
If you are at risk for PTSD but decide that you want to use your voice by getting out and physically protesting, you should plan to:
  • Have a support person with you
  • Have an exit plan in case you become overwhelmed
  • Participate in a smaller event or protest away from a big city environment

Can Healing Happen After the 2020 Protests?

With these protests comes a fear that more community or historical trauma will take place. Will communities be able to heal from this? Will the cycle of PTSD and historical trauma end? This all depends on what changes happen after the streets have cleared and the protests have stopped. Fortunately, there are already signs pointing to change:
  • Many businesses and organizations have made changes to support social justice
  • The police officers involved in George Floyd’s death have been charged
  • The use of chokeholds by police is being reconsidered

Where There is Change, There is Hope

While PTSD has the potential to make someone feel hopeless, the current changes taking place show us that there is hope—that those who have inherited decades of trauma will see the cycle end with their children.

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