For a little over a week last July, I couldn’t feel my toes. It’s an odd thing, losing sensation in the very foundation of your body. Then there was the hum of stress radiating through my bones and the fatigue of too many sleepless nights in a row. Oh yeah, and the panic attacks. It wasn’t just the pandemic and worrying for the safety of my loved ones. Or that George Floyd had been killed by police and scrolling through the news was a constant exercise in bracing for stories of Black pain or seemingly futile resistance. It was also that Black people, including me, were coming together for a long-overdue reckoning on anti-Black racism in workplaces around the world, and I had written a piece that I thought could end my career. Anxiety is an old friend, but last summer it had manifested in a constant murmur underneath my skin. It was suffocating.
By August, I thought, 2020 is shaving years off my life. By December, stress had physically taken hold of me in ways that are still too painful and personal to share and my anxiety attacks were as routine as my morning cup of tea.
Still, I knew how lucky I was. I had a job. My family was alive. All things considered, I didn’t think I had the right to complain or to use a certain word to describe what I was going through: Trauma. My shit felt too small for that word. In December, when Laverne Cox told me in an interview that “we’re collectively traumatized” by 2020, I thought of our Black trans brothers and sisters and decided that the “we” didn’t apply to me.
But it did apply to me. The jolt of the pandemic changing our lives overnight and the constant onslaught of anti-Black racism is traumatic (especially since Black people have had to deal with this shit our whole lives, long before George Floyd), and we need to use the proper language to describe it in order to heal.
“A lot of Black women don't really have the words to explain what it is their bodies are going through,” says Dr. Christine Crawford, racial trauma expert and assistant professor of psychiatry at the BU School of Medicine in Boston. “There are non-Black people who are very quick to invalidate the trauma that's being experienced by Black people in this country. If someone minimizes our experience by saying, ‘Well, I don't think what's going on has anything to do with racism. I think it's just a few bad people,’ that is another trauma in and of itself.”
With the help of Dr. Crawford and other experts, I decided to validate our experience of the trauma that was 2020 and figure out how to process and move forward in 2021, especially during the coming winter days and months that are hard on our mental health, no matter what year it is.
What are the physical effects of the trauma of the past year?
That’s easy. How exhausted are you? One of the ways trauma reveals itself is through fatigue and aches and pains, says Dr. Akua K. Boateng, a licensed psychotherapist based in Philadelphia. “If you’re saying, ‘Oh man, I can't sleep. I don't know what's going on.’ Or ‘I feel tension in my neck and my back is hurting. Or, that stomach issue I used to have has come back.’” Why? “It's kind of like a train,” Dr. Boateng explains. “Our systems work on the rails of our psychological framework internally. And when we go through trauma, it's like the train gets off of the rails.” She says that derailment can also show up in impaired judgment and decreased productivity and burnout. “Our capacity is impacted. For example, before last year, I could have sworn that, no matter what goes on, I could handle it. I thought I can take care of myself. I'll be alright. That was my outlook. Now, after last year, I'm like, Well, maybe not.”
These signs should not be dismissed or ignored. Dr. Crawford says the symptoms she sees from people who are experiencing race-related trauma are the same symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including high blood pressure, difficulty concentrating, sleeping, and increased anger and irritability. “The way that I like to describe being Black in America is it’s like wearing a heavy wetsuit, day in and day out,” she says. “Various forms of trauma — including microaggressions — stick with you and continue to weigh you down. And it's exhausting to have to carry these; it weighs you down and wears you out physically and emotionally.”
When it comes to the more physical effects, Seattle-based trauma therapist Ashley McGirt says Black women suffer the most. “We carry a lot of trauma in our bellies, which is why so many Black women suffer from fibroids. We also start to get headaches and migraines,” she says.
How did the violent Capitol insurgence retraumatize us?
By midnight on Jan. 1, 2021, I thought the physical heaviness of 2020 would magically wear off. I decided that my new word of the year was “LIGHT” (yes, in all caps) to forecast a year of more happiness and less hurt. Then, the Capitol attacks happened. White supremacy was on display in its full, hideous glory. And my toes started tingling again.
Boeteng says that watching a violent mob storm the Capitol in the name of white supremacy was absolutely a form of retraumatization. “It is not allowing a wound to heal by continuously agitating it, that's what re-traumatization does,” she says. “It just keeps picking the scab.” Adds Dr. Crawford: The thing about trauma is that people tend to just associate it with a violent, sudden event, but the reality is trauma is any event that's perceived by the individual as shocking. “That shock factor could be both physical and psychological.”
In fact, the insurgence, Dr. Boeteng says, reinforced the fact that Black people are in constant survival mode and that has devastating physical ramifications (see above). All of the experts I spoke to mentioned that living in a constant state of survival is detrimental to our health.
“If you are constantly under this siege of danger, or feel as though your sense of self is constantly threatened, that you're not safe and you feel vulnerable, your heart rate goes up,” says Dr. Crawford. That increased heart rate can lead to heart problems later on in life. She also notes that the difference in how police responded to the white insurgents and Black Lives Matter protestors over the summer added to the trauma. “It was further indication that there is a difference in the treatment of Black and brown bodies in this country, and that there's a difference in how we are perceived, and how we're treated, and the respect that is given to our bodies.”
This is usually touted as the most depressing time of the year. Is that still the case when every day is depressing?
How does the trauma of the past year come into play during Blue Monday and what some say is the most depressing month of the year? Dr. Boeteng says that the regular struggles of the season, like the lack of sun and vitamin D, are already hard to deal with so we need to make a concerted effort to feel connected to loved ones. "We also need to purposely schedule moments of connection and movement,” she says. “I know that becomes even harder with COVID, and harder with people feeling less capacity due to emotional trauma, but when we do have moments to connect or engage in physical activity, it can be a supplemental way of giving our body and brain what it needs.” (She also recommends light therapy, which is said to help with seasonal affective disorder.)
Dr. Crawford, on the other hand, says that in 2021, Blue Monday is “kind of a joke." “I think it would be unreasonable to suggest that Monday will be the lowest point in time in people’s lives in terms of their mood. That cannot be true because of the situation that we've been in over the course of the pandemic, in which rates of depression and anxiety have tripled, in which more than 40% of individuals present with symptoms of depression and anxiety.” Since so many people have been separated from their support systems during the pandemic and there are less mood-boosting winter activities to engage in, Dr. Crawford says this isn’t just a seasonal issue. “I think that people will continue to experience hardships way beyond Blue Monday.”
How can we reverse the effect of racial trauma?
"I'm always a big, big advocate of talk therapy,” McGirt says. “But there's also other practices like acupuncture, Reiki, dance, and movement that have served our community in positive ways.” She says being open about these issues is also a way to work through them. “Oftentimes, we don't discuss our struggles or we don't discuss the negative patterns in our family. Intergenerational trauma needs to be talked about.”
Dr. Crawford says conversations with family members who have also experienced this trauma is key. “For a lot of people, they come from families in which the expectation is that being Black in America is hard, and you just have to get through it,” she says. “I think the most important thing that we need to do as a community, as Black community, is to have honest conversations with each other about how we're doing emotionally.”
Dr. Boateng says reversing the effects of trauma depends on the severity. “Our body and mind have the capacity to provide hope, but sometimes only to a certain degree,” she says. One of the most effective ways is through meditation. “Meditation is one of the most neurologically restorative processes that we've seen probably within our lifetime.”
There’s also the healing effects of coming together in protest. “Collective action is really helpful for people right now, which looks like being engaged in activism,” Dr. Boateng says. “It gives us a sense of purpose, and also a sense of action when we feel some measure of hopelessness or powerlessness.”
How can we move past the trauma of 2020 to have a healthy 2021?
That’s going to take work and some good, old-fashioned JOY. McGuirt, who founded the WA Therapy Fund Foundation which provides free therapy to Black people in direct response to racial trauma and incessant police brutality, says it’s all about taking time for gratitude and recognizing what it is — no matter how little — that makes you happy. “What particular thing can bring joy and happiness into your life? Whether it's the smile on your children's face or a particular song, or just smelling fresh air or planting,” she says.
McGirt also says she does little things to offset the horrific news cycle, like not using her cell phone as her alarm clock in the morning and doing acupuncture, which helps relieve pain and stress by targeting strategic points on your body. “Black bodies are being slain every day, but I can also experience Black joy as a part of my revolution and rest,” she says. McGuirt is also planning a wedding. “I’m focusing on Black love and Black joy. Just because the world is burning, it doesn't mean we have to burn with it.”