Collective, Intergenerational Trauma – A Lens for Healing

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Video footage of George Floyd’s Memorial Day murder sent shock waves around the world. For some, it was an eye-opening experience. For others, it struck an all too familiar chord of dehumanization. 

As a result, a global conversation has been taking place regarding skin color, hate, police brutality, and systemic discrimination. There appears to be a crucial context that is either ignored or unknown by nearly all sides of the discussion. That context is a clinical understanding of trauma and its lasting effects on the human condition.    

Emotional trauma can persist indefinitely.

The very word “trauma” and its associations have been used so flippantly that its clinical counseling definition has been diluted. Medical doctors speak of bone injuries as “trauma” to the body. Talk show hosts colloquially speak of being “traumatized” by series finales or foreign culinary excursions. The American Psychological Association, however, defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event…” This latter type of trauma leaves the most profound imprint on the mind and body. 

Though invisible to the outside observer, emotional trauma wounds are just as real and painful as physical wounds, and can be measured with biofeedback mechanisms. From a clinical counseling perspective, wounds to the flesh heal naturally, but emotional scars can persist indefinitely. 

An international researcher and trauma expert, Bessel Van Der Kolk, wrote: “Trauma is not the story of something that happened back then… It’s the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside people.” Dr. Van Der Kolk’s groundbreaking research in “The Body Keeps the Score:  Mind, Brain, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” revealed that trauma can reside in the body long after the event has passed. 

Unbeknownst to many, trauma pain will not heal without intervention. If not acknowledged, felt, or therapeutically processed, the trauma imprint remains in the mind and corrodes the body from within. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the adage, “time heals all wounds,” is simply not applicable to trauma wounds.  

Trauma can be experienced collectively.

Just as a person can experience the terror of lingering trauma as an individual, a community can experience it on a collective level. Many individuals within the Black community are currently experiencing the pain of centuries of slavery, discrimination, and systematic dehumanization. The killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd have reopened core, endemic trauma wounds in the collective consciousness of Black America. 

Inga Skippings, Chief Engagement Officer of Spitfire Strategies, recently wrote: “Black people are not monolithic. Whether or not recent events are traumatic, and to what degree, varies across all of us. This is just my experience. I do know there are others like me who walk with this trauma that uniquely falls on our Black shoulders.” 

Skippings is not alone according to an emergency Covid-19 survey of U.S. households recorded by the Census Bureau. Cited in a June 12th article from The Washington Post’s health section, the weekly survey found that “[t]he rate of black Americans showing clinically significant signs of anxiety or depressive disorders jumped from 36 percent to 41 percent in the week after the video of Floyd’s death became public. That represents roughly 1.4 million more people.” Trauma therapists understand this phenomenon neuroscientifically: the viewers experienced vicarious retraumatization.  

Black Americans are experiencing multigenerational trauma.

On June 7th, Sandrine Lungumbu, digital reporter for the BBC World Service, wrote that although the viral video has been “near impossible to escape,” she decided that she would not watch the video due to the inevitable corrosive effects on her mental health and well-being. Unlike Lungumbu, millions of eyes did view the viciousness of George Floyd’s brutal suffocation and assimilated it in their visual cortex. Millions of ears across the globe also heard the sobs of a dying son, who’s last tearful pleas emanated from their screens and entered their auditory processing systems.

The sights and sounds of these 2020 killings have triggered the trauma wounds of hundreds of years of lynchings and systematic oppression. Van Jones described Floyd’s killing as the “lynching of a black man in broad daylight.” It is incumbent upon everyone to hear what he communicated: the experience of lynching is alive and well.  It was relived on Memorial Day. 

The sophistic, naive, or intransigent among us may protest: “That’s not literally true.  It was a rhetorical metaphor, not an actual lynching.” Clinically speaking, this notion is mistaken.  From a trauma perspective, it was as an *actual* lynching.  It was not one white knee on one black neck, suffocating the life out of one soul in Minneapolis.  It was the shared anguish felt by millions of individuals in aggregate, from separate periods of time and different geographical locations, encapsulated in those eight minutes and forty six seconds. Embedded in that one abhorrent act on that one day was the cumulative effect of intergenerational trauma wounds spanning centuries.  

Trauma’s effect on the human condition is fraught with even more complexity. The American Psychological Association cited in 2016:  “Common traumatic stress reactions reflecting racial trauma include increased vigilance and suspicion, increased sensitivity to threat, sense of a foreshortened future, and more maladaptive responses to stress such as aggression or substance use” (Comas-Diaz, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network). 

Dr. Joy DeGruy described some of these phenomena in her pioneering 2005 book, “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.” Her website explains P.T.S.S. as a “theory that explains the etiology of many of the adaptive survival behaviors in African American communities throughout the United States and the Diaspora. It is a condition that exists as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery.” DeGruy also details the resilience of the Black community as evidenced by its adaptive survival of the “multigenerational trauma” experience.  

Research suggests trauma can be inherited.

While no two instances of trauma are identical, and no two systems of oppression present identically, a 2015 study regarding inherited trauma in children of Holocaust survivors has opened up new questions related to skin-based hate. Subsequent research has continued to examine if complex intergenerational trauma can be transmitted epigenetically in utero. In other words, can trauma be inherited by a child before she has even experienced a distressing event? 

A growing body of research indicates yes. If verified, could the collective trauma of Black Americans have roots not only by shared environmental experiences (nurture), but by innate processes as well (nature)? Imagine the hindrances to therapeutically processing a wound that is both invisible and irretrievable in the folds of one’s memory. 

While more epigenetic research is needed to determine how trauma is transmitted, the carriers of these imperceptible wounds may walk with no limp, carry no crutch, and bear no visible scars. While the oppressors die, there is growing evidence that the imprint of their oppression continues to affect later generations.  

Individual and national healing requires a dialogue about trauma.

Just as game theorists and dispute mediators see conflicts beyond zero-sum inevitability, therapists have an added understanding of the nature of conflict. Solutions in the political or social arena are not likely to be efficacious until the American Black experience is seen through the lens of trauma and neuroscience. This awareness is the first step to healing the nation.

The next action steps includes a coordinated campaign of psychoeducation surrounding collective trauma and meeting the emerging need to therapeutically process that trauma in individual and group modalities. 

One such initiative is that of The Mental Health Association of Oklahoma, which offers free virtual support groups for those experiencing trauma and stress related to George Floyd’s death. To deny the existence of historical and on-going trauma experienced by Black Americans will hinder not only the healing of these wounds, but also of our nation.     

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