- We all have trauma in our bodies.
- Healing is uncomfortable, but refusing to heal is more painful.
- We can heal our trauma instead of reacting with fear to perceived threats.
The vagus nerve is the soul nerve, says Resmaa Menakem in his book My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. The vagus nerve is connected to the parts of our brain that do not use logical reasoning but nevertheless help us navigate our way in the world—what he calls the lizard brain, which is reflexively self-protective. (There is more to the vagus, including a social engagement capacity shaped by supportive early experience or later healing practices, which he does not address; see the work of Stephen Porges.)
In his book, Menakem offers a trauma-informed, resilience-promoting guidebook. He addresses racialized trauma in people with white skin, those with dark skin, as well as police officers, directing material toward each group as well as toward all Americans, all of whom, he says, suffer from racialized trauma.
Trauma and Its Effects
Trauma is nothing to be ashamed of. It is not a weakness or flaw but the body’s effective tool to keep us safe and surviving. Trauma is not an event but the reflexive response our body has to a shocking event.
Trauma manifests itself as some combination of pain, fear, anxiety, dread, reactive behaviors and constriction, rooted in our flight-fight-freeze-faint stress response system (e.g., running, shooting, withdrawing, numbing, respectively). Each person’s trauma response is unique. The conscious, logical mind cannot talk the trauma out of the body. Other healing approaches must be used.
Unhealed, trauma can get stuck and stay in the body, making us reactive to social triggers of the trauma life-long (trauma retention). The reactivity can be passed down to the next generation, and even passed to other people, communities, and cultures.
In the original traumatizing situation, the individual is unable to respond, is helpless in some way, and counter behaviors are thwarted (e.g., unable to run away as a baby). Sometimes individuals reenact the traumatizing situation without intent, setting themselves up to face the same kind of situation, offering the possibility of reacting in a different way. Healing a particular trauma often occurs when the individual has a chance to complete the action in reality or in the imagination (in therapy).
Cultural and Intergenerational Trauma
Soul wounds can come about through family mistreatment, abusive institutions, systems, or cultures. But it can also be transmitted through genetic and epigenetic inheritances from traumatized ancestors.
Cultural and intergenerational body-to-body trauma (e.g., brutal treatment of children and criminals, torture) occurred in Europe for centuries before Europeans brought it to the "new world" and spread it during colonization. Many Europeans settlers were refugees from widespread brutality in England and passed trauma to their descendants and the culture of their communities in the “new world.”
In the USA, White elites encouraged poor Whites to feel superior to Blacks and to feel afraid of them—in order to discourage them from continuing to rebel with Blacks to unfair class-based treatment. The elites portrayed the black body as a fearful thing—dirty, impervious to pain, almost invulnerable and hypersexual—something to be controlled however necessary. Maintaining white-body supremacy still today offers a sense of belonging. As a result of myths about black bodies, white bodies can be triggered into constriction, fear, hate—based on whatever trauma the individual has retained. This leads to a feeling of White fragility.
Experiencing Clean Pain
Menakem distinguishes dirty pain from clean pain. “Dirty pain is the pain of avoidance, blame, and denial” (Menakem, p. 20). It leads to cruelty, violence, or dissociation, creating more pain for self and others. Clean pain “hurts like hell” but “mends and can build your capacity for growth” (Menakem, pp. 19, 20). It is based in courage to feel or to do something with vulnerability. Here are five anchors for experiencing clean pain in a particular situation:
- Soothe yourself—mind, heart and body.
- Notice your body’s reactions.
- Accept discomfort.
- Stay present in your body.
- Safely discharge the energy that remains (exercise, dance, physical labor, whatever safe activity your body desires).
Menakem describes three kinds of racialized trauma: in white bodies, in black bodies and in the bodies in police officers. He contends that a key factor in the ongoing white-body supremacy is the refusal of individuals and collectives “to experience clean pain around the myth of race. Instead, usually out of fear, they choose the dirty pain of silence and avoidance and, invariably, prolong the pain” (Menakem, p. 20). Menakem points out that most of us have unresolved trauma based on “white-body supremacy” that has been passed on through generations over centuries.
If the individual does not heal trauma, they will pass it on, “blow it through” others. Traumatic reactions are quick, as can be seen in the reactions of police officers to innocent movements in citizens. He uses police actions as illustrations throughout the book. Incident after incident shows that officers react to a situation without thought but with fear, shooting both White and Black citizens without meaning to do so. This indicates that the police officers have retained trauma from earlier violent encounters because they did not release the energy as needed--#5 above.)
Each person needs to metabolize their trauma, to work through it and out of it with their bodies, not just with their conscious thinking mind. Trauma healing needs to be done slowly, perceiving the body’s reactions, learning to calm or settle.
Group healing is also important. Activities for groups with trusted others include humming, singing, rocking, folk dancing, massaging hands or feet, breathing deeply together in silence. Routine (sometimes daily) group and individual healing practices are part of humanity's heritages (part of our evolved nest), found among nomadic foraging communities like the San Bushmen, who have existed for over 150,000 years (Suzman, 2017).
The book is full of self-healing exercises for white bodies, black bodies, and police officers (he has worked with police units and his brother is an officer). Initial steps are to slow down, observe body reactions, and use techniques to help the body settle. “A grown-up response to trauma is to heal it, not to blow it through other bodies—or blow holes in other bodies” (Menakem, p. 123).
The aim is resilience, which Menakem describes as:
“not a thing or an attribute, but a flow. It moves through the body, and between multiple bodies when they are harmonized. It is neither built nor developed; it is taken in and expressed as part of a larger relationship with a family, a group, a community, or the world at large” (Menakem, p. 51).
The flow of this connected resilience blunts future wounding, creating more room for growth and development.
Menakem, R. (2017). My Grandmothers Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Las Vegas: Central Recovery press.
Suzman, J. (2017). Affluence without abundance: The disappearing world of the Bushmen. New York: Bloomsbury.