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Examining Race-Based Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress

Can exposure to race-based trauma lead to post traumatic stress disorder?

Source: Marquise Kamanke/Unsplash
Source: Marquise Kamanke/Unsplash

In this unique time in our history, our communities are experiencing a great deal of trauma. I am often asked, “What is the difference between race-based trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder?”

Race-based trauma is the ongoing result of racism, discrimination or prejudice, racial bias, and exposure to racial abuse. This exposure can be experienced personally, or vicariously, by watching the experiences of others in your community or via social media. Race-based trauma can affect many aspects of a person’s life, including their ability to concentrate on schoolwork, perform at their job, and to feel safe; safe in places that others may take for granted, like in their own home, or driving down the street in their neighborhood with their family. And unfortunately, race-based trauma is widespread among marginalized groups like those who identify as Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC).

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) falls under the clinical diagnostic category of anxiety disorders that can develop following a particularly stressful, distressing, and otherwise traumatizing life event. This illness is characterized by an intense fear, feelings of helplessness, and stress. PTSD can affect a person’s ability to develop and sustain healthy relationships, and impacts their ability to function at school, at work, or in the community. The symptoms of PTSD generally fall into the following categories:

1. Reliving the event: Individuals who experience PTSD often have flashbacks of the traumatic event and it may feel as if they are experiencing the traumatic event all over again. This reliving can be very realistic and is often a full sensory experience. Some people may even have nightmares and hallucinations.

2. Avoidance of potential triggers: Individuals may avoid the people, places, or things that remind them of the traumatic event. This can lead to serious functional limitations if places the person needs to go (e.g., work, school, or just outside their home) can trigger a flashback or other debilitating symptom.

3. Excessive arousal: Many people who live with PTSD exhibit a heightened arousal state and increased alertness. They may also experience anger, fits of rage, or irritability and have difficulty sleeping or concentrating due to their heightened arousal state.

4. Negative thoughts or emotions: Many individuals report feeling a range of emotions often including things like guilt or shame. They may ruminate about the event and wonder what they could have done differently to prevent it or may begin to believe it is their fault. They may also have flat affect or no emotions at all.

The primary difference between race-based trauma and PTDS is not related to the severity of the event or the trauma, but rather the severity and length of the symptoms. Following a traumatic event, the mind and body often go into a state of shock and the symptoms of shock often mimic those of PTSD. Therefore, PTSD is generally not diagnosed until a minimum of one month after a traumatic event has occurred, to assure against misdiagnosis. If an individual who has experienced a traumatic event is still experiencing the symptoms of reliving the event, avoidant behavior, heightened arousal, and negative emotions and thoughts after a month has passed, and these symptoms are impairing their ability to function, they may in fact meet criteria for PTSD. But PTSD must be diagnosed by a licensed mental health professional. It is a serious mental illness, which often requires treatment in the form of counseling, medication, or some combination of both.

People most often associate PTSD with the experience of veterans returning from combat experience, but it is important to understand that people can develop PTSD as the result of any seriously traumatic situation or life event, including exposure to race-based traumas. Everyone experiences race-based trauma different. This is in part due to individual personality traits, one’s personal experience with other similar traumas in the past that may be exacerbated by an acute event, as well as how an individual uniquely perceives a traumatic event.

For example, two friends engage in a peaceful protest against police brutality in an urban city. After peacefully marching for 30 minutes, the police surround the protesters, start throwing gas bombs, begin arresting protestors and the scene becomes chaotic. One of the two people had no intention of engaging with the police and became immediately frightened. They start to run, can’t find their friend, and begin to ruminate on violence that has occurred at other protests and this person is now scared for their life. However, the other person is happy to engage with the police. They are angry and want an opportunity to stand up for themselves, even if that means being arrested. In this example, both people are present at the same incident, but may perceive the event in very different ways, and as a result, will likely experience different psychological impacts.

For some, experiencing race-based trauma may not have an impact that persists over time. But for many, the impact can be debilitating. Race-based trauma can then lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety and if they persist can become a diagnosable illness like PTSD. People may also experience physical manifestations of this trauma in the form of headaches, stomachaches, other body aches and pains, and difficulty focusing or remembering things. And the stress that develops due to experiencing ongoing race-based trauma can have long-lasting effects, even increasing the risk of chronic disease.

Race-based trauma can have a very negative impact on the mental health and wellness of Black and brown people in the United States. The cause of the trauma does not really play a role in whether or not someone is diagnosed with PTSD, however race-based trauma as a precipitant to PTSD is not generally recognized in the field of psychology and psychiatry and you won’t see much about it in our profession’s diagnostic statistical manual. Most clinicians are not trained to assess for race-based trauma or trained on how to treat it. The reality is there are likely many more people living with PTSD because of race-based trauma than we are aware of. Many people living with this condition may not even be aware. We are not taught about this connection and many in the Black community may not even realize this is something you can seek professional mental health services for. These factors have created a significant gap between what our community is experiencing and the public’s understanding and awareness of these issues. And further, a gap between the clinical needs of the Black community and the resources available to assist those who need help.

If you or someone you know has experienced a race-based trauma and is/are having a hard time functioning, review the symptoms of PTSD. If longer than a month has passed, and these symptoms remain, they may benefit from a professional evaluation and treatment.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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