- The fear response is like your bike's brakes. It's normal to hit the brakes during threat, but your brakes can get stuck if you overuse them.
- You can unlearn your trauma response just as might need to learn to ride a bike again. Many well-researched therapies can help.
- Racial trauma is a form of trauma that can lead to similar responses when witnessing or experiencing racism.
- Finding an anti-racist therapist can help individuals process their racial trauma.
Coauthored by Regina Brodell, Morgan Lynch, and Darby Saxbe
Whether you’re cruising the streets of Seattle or climbing the mountains of Colorado, your bike hopefully has a working set of brakes. When you squeeze the brakes (input), they respond by bringing the bike to a stop (output). A braking system will always respond in this way, regardless of if what lies on the road is a boulder, a piece of wood, or a pebble.
So what does your bike have to do with trauma? We have a similar braking system in an area of the brain, called the amygdala. If it’s activated by something threatening, it creates a fear response (fight, flight, freeze). These responses are designed to protect us.
However, if our amygdala is constantly activated, our braking system may keep stopping even when there is no visible threat. And if we are constantly squeezing the brakes, we won’t go anywhere, and our braking system will eventually become worn down. This could lead to a brake malfunction, where the brakes don’t work well or simply get stuck.
This bike metaphor can help us understand trauma because it highlights that fear responses are normal and natural: after all, squeezing the brakes is the best way to respond in the moment to a bump in the road. But sometimes, when someone has suffered a traumatic event, or a series of traumas, their limbic system, which includes the amygdala, starts to over-respond to things that aren’t threatening.
Trauma refers to an event that is psychologically overwhelming for an individual. Most people who experience a traumatic event will not develop post-traumatic symptoms.
But some individuals may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can include irritability, constant concern for safety, anxiety, and jitteriness, coupled with re-experiencing symptoms such as flashbacks, and intense physiological responses to reminders of the trauma (e.g. increased heart rate, rapid breathing). We can think about this as if someone was constantly “squeezing the brakes,” or couldn’t turn off their safety response system. If you have been diagnosed with PTSD or suspect you may have this diagnosis, remember that it is not your fault or a sign of weakness.
Racial Trauma as a Form of Trauma
If we take a moment to reflect on the last year, we can see a similar “braking response” in individuals who have experienced racial trauma. The term “racial trauma” can be defined as “the cumulative traumatizing impact of racism on a racialized individual, which can include individual acts of racial discrimination combined with systemic racism, and typically includes historical, cultural, and community trauma as well” (Butts, 2002).
There is a multitude of race-based encounters that can lead to one experiencing racial trauma, such as:
- Personal experiences of racism (e.g., microaggressions)
- Witnessing close friends or family members experience racism or discrimination
- Witnessing racial disparities (e.g., especially those exacerbated by the pandemic)
- Having a family history of trauma (i.e., intergenerational trauma)
- Witnessing racism through the news (e.g., the shootings in Atlanta)
In the past year alone, we can identify several horrific acts of racial and ethnic hostility that may have caused many Black, Indigenous, and people of color to experience racial trauma. These race-based encounters can significantly disrupt one’s day-to-day life, causing feelings of hopelessness and shame. The continuous fear of exposure to racial and ethnically charged assaults and harassment continues to cause intense emotional turmoil in both children and adults. These repeated exposures can trigger one’s braking system, or stress response system, as a means to prepare to react to whatever threat is activating the amygdala.
How to Treat PTSD and Racial Trauma
If our bodies grow accustomed to holding the brakes for several periods at a time, we may begin to experience that wear and tear. Just like bikes, we all benefit from regular maintenance. Sometimes this can be done through “self-care,” knowing and honoring our needs, and sometimes maintenance is needed from a professional psychotherapist.
In a way, therapy is like relearning how to ride a bike that was faulty. It teaches you how to learn from the past, trust yourself again, and be ready to squeeze the brakes when needed. It’s important to remember throughout the process that it takes time to retrain the brain and body to think and process new information differently.
There are a few types of evidence-based treatments that exist for PTSD (this means that the treatments have been studied, tested, and found to be effective). Evidence-based treatments include: 1) coping, skills-focused treatment, 2) exposure-based treatments, 3) cognitive therapy, 4) combination treatments, and 5) eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) (Barlow, 2014).
Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) is one such evidence-based treatment for PTSD. In CPT, survivors write Impact Statements, in which they describe how their most distressing traumatic event affected them. This statement is used throughout treatment. The therapist reviews this statement with the survivor to help them understand how the event may have altered their view of the world, or the cause of the event.
Additionally, the therapist helps the survivor combat feelings of guilt, blame, and shame. Then, the therapist will teach the survivor how to challenge thoughts and assumptions for themselves. It’s important to note that this type of therapy can be combined with others, and for many individuals, more than one type of treatment may be necessary, and that’s normal.
Modifications to standardized evidence-based treatments for PTSD are necessary for recovering from racial trauma, due to the systematic nature of racism (Bryant-Davis & Ocampo, 2006). A few things are important to look for in a therapist for racial-trauma treatments: a therapist should have an anti-racist stance in their therapeutic work (Comas-Diaz, 2000), a therapist should attend to the unique experiences of racist incidents including additional gender oppression (Daniel, 2000), and a therapist should recognize the political repression of racism. These factors mean that the therapist should not minimize, ignore, or intellectualize racism.
Therapy for racial trauma is challenging for a survivor; clinicians refer to it as the “clean” kind of painful, the kind of pain that mends and builds a capacity for growth (Menakem, 2017). In recovering from racial trauma in therapy, a survivor can expect to work to:
- Acknowledge the events
- Share their individual story
- Establish safety plans (including empowering survivors of racial trauma to respond when incidents occur)
- Grieve the losses of what the traumatic experience took from them
- Challenge thoughts of self-blame and shame, and build empowerment and self-esteem
- Express their anger in healthy ways
- Develop healthy coping strategies including stress management and problem-solving
- Develop resistance strategies to build competence, autonomy, and self-worth. This includes empowering individuals to demand equality (Carter, 1994; Bryant-Davis & Ocampo, 2006).
If you have experienced trauma and may have symptoms of PTSD, remember that it's not your fault, and there is no shame in what you are feeling.
Remember that the way you are thinking and feeling won’t last forever. There are effective treatments for PTSD.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Regina Brodell and Morgan Lynch are both graduate students enrolled in the Clinical Science Ph.D. program within the Psychology Department at the University of Southern California.
Barlow, D.H. (Ed.). (2014). Clinical handbook of psychological disorders: A step-by-step treatment manual. (5th ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Bryant-Davis, T., & Ocampo, C. (2006). A therapeutic approach to the treatment of racist-incident-based trauma. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 6(4), 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1300/J135v06n04_01
Butts, H. F. (2002). The black mask of humanity: Racial/ethnic discrimination and post-traumatic stress disorder. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 30(3), 336–339.
Carter, J. (1994). Racism’s impact on mental health. Journal of the National Medical Association, 86, 543-547.
Comas-Diaz, L. (2000). An ethnopolitical approach to working with people of color. American Psychologist, 55(11), 1319-1325.
Daniel, J. H. (2000). The courage to hear: African American women’s memories of racial trauma. In L. Jackson & B. Greene (Eds.), Psychotherapy with African American women: Innovations in psychodynamic perspective and practice (pp. 126-144). New York: Guilford Press.
Menakem, R. (2017. My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Las Vegas, NV: Central Recovery Press.