Trauma See, Trauma Do

faith n vazquez

It’s no secret that the past two years have been a time of great loss. The Black community has lost some of our greatest heroes and icons as well as our neighbors. The impact of one heartbreaking story after another can, at times, feels like too much to handle. In times like these, we need to understand our feelings.

Though not a monolith, Black people share what can be described as a collective consciousness. In the same way generational trauma is passed down through learned behavior and unresolved wounds, our collective consciousness was born out of shared experiences with racism. The compounding effects of racism, loss, and watching harrowing videos of Black death is a recipe for complete exhaustion. Communication and education can be effective tools for healing because they help us alleviate exhaustion by understanding our collective pain. 

Kathryn Millán, a Mental Health Service Provider and Licensed Professional Counselor, says Secondary Traumatic Stress—also known as compassion fatigue—can affect people who encounter others’ experiences with trauma. 

According to Millán, symptoms of STS include: 

  • Re-experiencing past personal trauma, even if it is unrelated
  • Repeated thinking about the traumas of other people
  • Nightmares about traumatic incidents, often accompanied by sleep disturbance
  • Increase in anxiety, sometimes feeling restless, frozen or angry
  • Hypervigilance or remaining on the lookout for more danger
  • Changes in perception or memory
  • Feelings of inadequacy or feeling unable to help
  • Exhaustion, weariness or depression
  • Disrupted sense of trust and safety

These symptoms can heavily impede a person’s ability to enjoy even the best circumstances, let alone during a global pandemic. 

One possible explanation for STS is the presence of specialized neurons in our brain called mirror neurons. Discovered by Professor Giacomo Rizzolatti while studying macaque monkeys, these neurons are responsible for humans’ “monkey see, monkey do” way of learning. In his study of mirror neurons, Rizzollatti discovered that the same type of activity takes place in our brain when we watch someone else lift their arm as when we lift our own arm. Similarly, when we watch video of someone else being harmed, we can experience some of that trauma in our own brain. That empathy is a neurological response, triggering the emotional centers of our brain. When the news cycle of full of these kinds of events, it’s no surprise that Black viewers frequently report feeling exhausted. 

Of course, Black people are not the only ones with mirror neurons—the difference is that non-Black people can separate themselves from Black issues and Black trauma. It is much harder for Black people to detach. 

Understanding the neurological effects of violence gives Black people tools for healing. A lifetime of being Black in America on top of multiple years in a global pandemic warrants rest and reflection. We need to have honest conversations about the destruction that racism causes so that we may design ways to treat the disorder. Don’t be afraid to rest; your neurons might need it.