Healing Racial Trauma from a C-PTSD Perspective

healing racial trauma

Healing racial trauma from a C-PTSD approach

How Does Racial Trauma Arise From Racism
Growing up, I never heard racism discussed in the context of racial trauma. But then again, people weren’t talking much about PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) or trauma for that matter. You were supposed to suck up emotional pain and “pull yourself up from your bootstraps.” From a clinical perspective, the impact of racism on an individual or a community, can mirror the symptoms of PTSD. What difference does it make? Viewing racism from a trauma perspective can expand possible solutions beyond the social justice or political realm. These things are important, but racism also takes its toll on someone spiritually, physically and emotionally. Of course, those of us trained in therapy from a social work perspective, are well-accustomed to providing care in a manner that takes their environment and specifically their culture into consideration.

Racial Trauma and C-PTSD
When most people think of trauma, they think of a specific catastrophic event such as a car accident, sexual assault or a natural disaster. These events can lead to a diagnosis of PTSD if the symptoms are recurrent and meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD which includes such things as flashbacks, avoidance and changes in mood. Complex PTSD often shortened to C-PTSD often includes those symptoms, but refers to another category of trauma that often reflects an accumulation of stressful events. There are additional symptoms that relate to one’s sense of self/identity , relations with others and emotional regulation.

Racial Microaggressions
Microaggressions are typically brief encounters that may superficially appear to be benign, but result in emotional injury towards their target. In the case of racial microaggressions or microinsults, the communications end up demeaning someone based on their race. The microaggression doesn’t need to be intentional to afflect emotional damage that takes its toll. Imagine enduring this over and over in the work place, in a store, in a simple greeting.

The cumulative effect of ongoing microaggressions and stress is that the entire world can feel like your battlefield. This can result in constant hypervigilence that consumes your energy and leaves you feeling drained.

Symptoms can include:

  • An exaggerated startle response especially to loud noices and raised voices.
  • Being on high alert
  • Never truly feeling safe
  • Being reactive
  • In abiilty to recall memories for large periods of time
  • History of abusive relationships and self-defeating behavior such as substance use and over-eating
  • Feeling drained or numb
Racial trauma is trauma and requires abundant self-care and treatment

“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.”

―  Bessel A. van der Kolk 

Prolonged exposure, Cognitive Processing Therapy, Accelerated Resolution Therapy, Brainspotting and EMDR are common ways to treat Complex PTSD. Many practitioners work on stabilizing a patient prior to engaging full on to treat symptoms. Helping a client develop grounding techniques using mindfulness strategies and establishing a consistent self-care regimen are some excellent ways to restore some of the energy that results from the traumatic effects of racism. Trauma depletes your energy which can exacerbate depression and leave you feeling drained. Focusing on increasing energy and restoring vitality can help provide the “jump start” to feeling better.

You can find other soundbites related to well-being, self-compassion and healing here.

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