Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome: Trauma In Your DNA

Our mental health expert, T. Conswello Davis, explains race-based stress and trauma in Black Americans.

As human beings, we are all affected by what happens to us and around us. Some of us have been physically, verbally, or sexually abused. Others have seen violence perpetrated on our friends and neighbors. These incidents are known as trauma.

Trauma is defined as a “deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” It affects a person’s psyche and can cause behavioral changes as an emotional response to disturbing events. Sometimes individuals who suffer from trauma develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.

Recent studies confirm that trauma which happened to our ancestors can still affect us today. This is known as intergenerational trauma or historical trauma. The premise of intergenerational trauma is this: if our parents or grandparents experienced abuse and did not work through the emotions and heal from the experience, the body can change our DNA so that we, the later generations, are more likely to react in an altered way to trauma. Usually, the effects of trauma are noticed because the body has specific reactions to it (heightened blood pressure, sad mood, high anxiety, etc.). Research now suggests that the offspring of individuals who have traumatic experiences are more prone to develop stress and anxiety disorders.

Research has been conducted on several ethnic populations who have been traumatized because they have been subjected to loss of culture, genocide and disruption of communities and families. Black Americans and Native Americans are two populations which have been studied extensively in the United States.

The study that has been recently published regarding Black Americans who have been traumatized calls this sydrome Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, or PTSS. Dr. Joy De Gruy explains how Black people in the U.S. are still suffering from abuse inflicted on our ancestors and how that affects our lives today.

Africans were kidnapped and forced on ships to America. Once in America, an African became property, and was forced to provide slave labor. Many of the slaves were beaten, raped, and/or sodomized. As time passed, although we were no longer enslaved and considered property to the American white people, Black women and men still experience daily trauma via oppression, racism, lynching, etc. As we fast forward to the present, we experience systemic oppression, institutionalized racism, police brutality, and blatant white supremacy.

Black Americans are still experiencing trauma and small aggressions each and every day in this country. An individual does not have to actually endure the experience of, for example, not being allowed to apply for a job, to feel the hopelessness of applying for jobs while Black. Vicarious trauma – when an individual becomes witness to an abuse or hurt and feels the pain and fear of the victim – can be almost as damaging as experiencing the abuse one’s self.

The media is filled with videos of police officers beating, shooting, and verbally abusing innocent Black men, women, and children. Watching these can cause secondary trauma. The anger, pain, and fear incited by these interactions is extremely damaging to Black Americans. If, for example, you as a Black man or woman have had bad experiences with law enforcement, these videos can cause you to be triggered and re-traumatized.

It is important for all of us in Black America is acknowledge that we are impacted on a daily basis with what is occurring in this country. We must take care of our psychological health and try to remain strong as we fight to be given our fair shake in an unfair society.

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