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What is Racial Trauma: From Fetus to Adulthood?

Updated: Aug 20


If you look like you are Black, Indigenous, Asian, or a person from a racially marginalized group, then you have undoubtedly experienced race related discrimination in your lifetime. This type of discrimination does not know age restrictions. In fact, in studies for gestating (i.e., pregnant) people, Black and Indigenous people, in that order, consistently receive poorer medical treatment and have higher mortality rates regardless of their income and level of education, than White gestating people due to implicit and explicit racial bias. This means that Black and Indigenous fetuses receive poorer treatment. Furthermore, studies conducted in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) have the same findings.


Whether in the womb or recently born into the world, babies experience racial discrimination. Encountering racial discrimination tends to continue throughout their lifetime and can transmit across generations. For people with uteruses, prolonged exposure to stress and trauma can negatively impact fertility and womb health.


What is Racial Trauma?

As we have discussed previously, trauma is a psychological experience of feeling like one is in danger and may even die. While discrimination is being treated badly due to a characteristic, in this case race, trauma is when the discrimination is so intense that it causes cognitive and physical changes in the body. The distinction of discrimination and racial trauma is important because as a society, we can begin to decrease the discrimination in an effort to minimize the rise of trauma.


Racial trauma is formed from experiencing or even learning about upsetting racial events such as violence, threats, discrimination, and all layers of racism. The resulting effect is that the person comes to believe, rightfully so, that they are in a constant state of endangerment simply because they live in the skin in which they were born. In other words, simply for existing, we are in danger. Over time, the effects of racial trauma are identical to symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder and have the same physical effects of prolonged stress and early childhood trauma.


What are Some Known Symptoms of Racial Trauma in Adults?

There is a great deal of documented data on the effects of stress on the body and on the symptoms of trauma. Below are some of the symptoms that are associated with acute (short and intense) and chronic (i.e., long and reocurring) racial trauma for adults.

  • Inattention/difficulty concentrating

  • Re-experiencing the events (in your body, it feels like the event is happening again)

  • Intrusive thoughts about the event

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Hopelessness

  • Exhaustion

  • Emotional dysregulation

  • Hypervigilance (always feeling on edge or “waiting for the other shoe to drop”)

  • Cardiovascular disease (heart disease)

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)

  • Rapid aging

  • Nightmares or difficulty sleeping


What Does Racial Trauma Look Like for Children?


Effects of Trauma: Health and Behavioral Outcomes in Children

Keep in mind that while babies can and do absolutely experience the psychological and physical effects of trauma, they are more likely to experience the transmission of their caregivers’ trauma. For example, caregivers who are hypervigilant, tend to send the message to their child that the world is unpredictable and vastly unsafe. While this is true, children need stability in order to take risks that are needed for healthy development. Without taking some risks, the result can be low self-esteem or self-worth. Here are some symptoms that children can have after experiencing racial trauma.

  • Inattention/ difficulty concentrating (i.e., the overdiagnosis of ADHD is often trauma being misdiagnosed)

  • Continually re-enacting the event without the guidance of a skilled play therapist

  • Intrusive thoughts about the event

  • Anxiety (extreme “shyness,” quiet or withdrawn when not at home, frequent complaints of stomach aches)

  • Digestive problems

  • Depression (in young children, depression often looks like anger and excessive tantrums or irritability).

  • Hopelessness

  • Exhaustion

  • Delays in social skills such as difficulty making friends or maintaining social relationships

  • Emotional dysregulation

  • Nightmares or difficulty sleeping


How Can We Cope with Racial Trauma?

Ideally, future generations will not have to deal with racial trauma because we are working to eradicate it. However, the likelihood is that you and I will not live to see that day. Therefore, we need to understand how to be the healthiest versions of ourselves within the context of trauma. It is important to note that for trauma treatment, we usually aim to start treatment after the person is no longer in danger. Unfortunately, that is impossible in the context of racial trauma and means that our trauma work will be ongoing. Below are coping strategies for children and adults.


Grown-ups:

  • If your symptoms feel manageable, please seek professional mental health intervention from a skilled and licensed trauma therapist who understands the nuances of racial trauma.

  • Talk about your experiences with others. Keeping things bottled up puts stress in a pressure cooker. Instead, share your stories of racial discrimiation with those you trust. If your symptoms seem unmanageable.

  • Self-care saves lives, including your own. Engage in safe activities that bring you joy. Laughter really is good medicine.

  • Physical movement is directly related to mental health wellness. Create opportunities to move, whether that includes taking a stroll or riding a bike, or slow and gentle stretching

  • Look for activities that you can do mindfully. We have a free download and a video to get you started.

  • Using mantras and positive affirmations can be very helpful in times when you are actually safe, but your brain is telling you that you are unsafe (e.g., when you are re-experiencing or having intrusive thoughts about past events)

  • Work on feeling empowered

  • Practice how to respond to racial discrimination with people you know and trust

  • Make a list of situations, places, and items that have increased your trauma symptoms. This is called identifying your triggers, so that you know when to best activate your healthy coping strategies.

  • Limit your exposure to other potentially traumatic events and images which can include decreasing your social media participation and viewing

  • When possible, change your surroundings such as starting to look for a new job if your job is a source of racial stress, or actively working to change your workplace culture

Children

  • When children are experiencing trauma symptoms that may be outside of the scope of a caregiver handling on their own, they should be referred to a mental health therapist, such as a play therapist or a parent-child therapist for professional intervention.

  • Play and movement with a trusted and safe adult (remember that children under 9 years old, usually express themselves better through play and create arts than they do through verbal communication. Play is the language of children)

  • Creative expression like drawing, painting, or dancing

  • Guided mindfulness with the assistance of an adult or more skilled peer (e.g., an older sibling, friend, cousin, etc.)

  • Having caregivers openly discuss race and how to handle racial stress in a healthy way

  • Having a consistent schedule and stable routine help children gain a sense of safety

Takeaways

Racial discrimination is all around us. Those of us who are experiencing racial trauma and symptoms of PTSD based on racial events, have an added need to learn how to cope with what we are feeling while also working to change the system that is harming us. It is especially important for us to address physical feelings and mental emotion so that children do not experience the transmission of our trauma. Here are the main takeaways when starting your journey of healing from racial trauma.

  • Racial discrimination starts before we are born.

  • Racial discrimination can lead to symptoms of racial trauma

  • Psychological racial trauma has the same symptoms of diagnosable PTSD

  • Treatment for psychological trauma is available

  • Empowerment and self-care can help lower the effects of trauma on the mind and body

I am Black woman in a White imperious (domineering) field. I have experienced racial trauma as an ongoing active ingredient in my life since before I was born. The treatment that my mother experienced when she was pregnant with me and on the day of my birth almost cost me my life. As I grew up, I experienced racial discrimination time and time again throughout my childhood and adulthood. The sad part is that for so long, it just felt natural because I did not know anything else. I eventually developed acute symptoms of race related PTSD after a job experience. I experienced gaslighting and isolation designed to make me think that I was the problem. It wasn’t me. I was not the problem, just like it is not you and it is not the racialized child that comes to your mind. Racism is the problem. Leaving that job, seeking therapy (yes, most therapists have a therapist or have been in therapy), and implementing many of the coping strategies that are listed in this article, helped me reengage with the world in a way that feels authentically me. The nightmares are gone, my smile is bright, and I am here to help. Make sure that you take a moment to play a little today.


Racial trauma survivor and healer,

Dr. Dowtin


Looking for a therapist to help your family process racial trauma? Seeking a supervisor who brings race into the room instead of running from it? Contact us for a free 15-minute consultation.


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