From Surviving to Thriving: Healing from Trauma in Black Communities

Stress, pain, grief…these are all inevitable parts of life, one’s that we often hold alongside moments of joy, love, comfort. But what happens when the pain becomes too much to bear? What happens when despite our best efforts and intentions, the cards are not stacked in our favor…were never stacked in our favor.

The Black community is no stranger to bearing the burden of pain while holding tight to our power in resisting, fighting, and healing. In this country, the cards have never been stacked in our favor and we’ve been asked time and again to make lemonade from lemons.

In the field of mental health, we often label the experiences of unbearable pain and suffering as trauma. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM for short) states you have to experience a very specific type of ‘traumatic event’ and experience a very specific set of symptoms to receive a formal diagnosis called Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I would like to offer the definition that many of us in the trauma field use: Traumas are those experiences and events that overwhelm our ability to cope, create feelings of helplessness and unpredictability, and often leave lasting emotional impact. There is quite a range in trauma experiences, from single, overwhelming events (e.g., car accidents, unexpected death/loss) to more complex and complicated experiences (e.g., prolonged and repeated abuse). At its core, trauma is an experience of profound helplessness, powerlessness and fear.

Following a traumatic experience, people often report feelings such as:

  • increased anxiety
  • depression
  • anger
  • isolation
  • flashbacks or intrusive thoughts
  • nightmares and difficulty sleeping
  • feeling on edge/hypervigilance
  • changes in appetite or eating
  • physical aches and pains
  • avoidance of people/places/things that remind you of past, bad experiences

Mental health treatment for trauma provides a pathway forward…an opportunity to heal…and, most importantly, to regain that sense of control and power that was so wrongly taken from you in the first place.

Trauma also occurs within the framework of our cultural realities. What is experienced by one person as traumatic is not necessarily experienced in that same way by another. These differences in experience become even greater when we live our lives day to day in different bodies, whether those differences are by race, color, gender, age, nationality, etc.

We tend to understand trauma as what is happening in one moment in time, but it is much more complex than that, and the impact of that complexity is profound. There is a phenomenon in psychology, called intergenerational trauma, where the children of parents who have experienced trauma are affected, directly or indirectly, by that experience and develop symptoms of trauma themselves. This phenomenon was first observed in the children of Holocaust survivors who sought treatment for various forms of mental and emotional distress although they were not survivors of that trauma themselves. Trauma can be intergenerational, and it can also be historical.

There is perhaps no greater example of the historical and intergenerational impact of trauma than that experienced by the Black community. In fact, Joy DeGruy, Ph.D., wrote a book specifically on this idea, called Posttraumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS). PTSS is when a population experiences intergenerational trauma from centuries of psychological and emotional enslavement and continues to face institutionalized oppression and racism. What this means is that Black Americans who are descendants of former slaves, when faced with the everyday racism and oppression they inevitably endure, have reactions that mirror that of PTSD. It also means that the pain and trauma the Black community has been forced to endure never ended with slavery or the Civil Rights Movement, but transformed, to the everyday pain and suffering the Black community knows all too well. So what do we do with this knowledge and realization?

There is, first and foremost, an incredible capacity to heal within ourselves and our own communities that has existed for generations. Before therapists took on a formal role to help people emotionally heal, there were mothers, fathers, grandparents, brothers, sisters, healers, preachers, community leaders…a vast network of those who had been through what we went through, knew what it took to survive and to heal, and helped us through the darkest of times.

As a biracial psychologist, I have witnessed first-hand the remarkable healing and growth of Black families that takes place a in safe, trusted, therapeutic relationship, guided by the best recommended treatment approaches.

The three major phases of healing from trauma that I practice in my work, which follows a model proposed by Judith Herman, M.D., who wrote, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence- from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, involve:

  • Finding safety: in therapy this involves a focus on finding both external safety (e.g., safe housing, finding ways out of abusive relationships) and internal safety (e.g., learning how to cope with negative or unsafe thoughts, ending addictive behaviors or other unhealthy coping behaviors)
  • Remembrance and Mourning: this phase involves processing what you’ve been through in a supportive and safe environment and making sense of those experiences. This is often accomplished through a slow, gradual process of talking and finding ways to express, understand and make meaning of the traumatic experiences you’ve endured. •Reconnection: this final phase involves restoring the connection between survivors and their communities. Often, experiences of trauma make us feel isolated and alone. This final phase is critical in helping survivors to find ways to reconnect and reestablish relationships that may have been lost in the aftermath of their traumatic experiences.

Seeking therapy to heal from trauma is not easy. It takes courage, strength and a willingness to let someone in to the most difficult and horrifying of your life experiences. But the longer we carry the burden and pain of these experiences on our own, the deeper and longer the pain may burn. Mental health treatment for trauma provides a pathway forward…an opportunity to heal…and, most importantly, to regain that sense of control and power that was so wrongly taken from you in the first place. The process is difficult, but the healing and growth you will experience cannot be understated. It is, simply, life changing.

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Lindsay Gavin, PhD About Author

Lindsay Gavin, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist currently working at a pediatric hospital in Baltimore, MD. She received a B.A. in Psychology from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, an M.S. in Clinical Psychology from Loyola University Maryland, and a Ph.D. in Clinical-Community Psychology from the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). She currently works as a pediatric psychologist providing individual and family therapy services as well as psychological/psychoeducational evaluations for children and adolescents who present with a wide range of mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression, OCD, ADHD, disruptive/impulse-control disorders, learning disabilities, autism, and more. Dr. Gavin is particularly interested in the prevention and treatment of the psychological effects of trauma in children, adolescents, and their families. She has worked clinically in many different settings over the years, including outpatient clinics, inpatient settings within hospitals, schools, private practice, and child advocacy centers. She is also interested in pursuing community-based research relating to issues of racial identity, social justice, criminal justice, risk and resilience, sense of community, and exploring these concepts among minority and marginalized populations.