I recently received a notification from my Libby app that a book I had on hold from the library was available. The book was My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem. My interest in this book was from a professional standpoint — I wanted to improve myself as a therapist and improve my understanding of trauma. However, upon reading this book I realized how fitting it was for me to embark on this literary journey at this moment in time of protests and calls for justice.
Below are points from the book as well as my commentary on those excerpts. I encourage those who are interested to take a look at the book itself, as Menakem does a great job of incorporating mindfulness exercises and guided reflections on you, your mind, and your body. I have also listed at the conclusion of this post a few exercises and inspiration for your self care journey as we all heal from our traumas.
What is Trauma?
Some of us may understand trauma as something that happens, causing a traumatic memory or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Whatever event happens that causes that trauma, is something that happened in the present moment to me.
But that is not always the case! There is also intergenerational trauma — the passing on of trauma from one generation to another, e.g. from your parents to you. There is collective trauma that is experienced by a larger community, e.g. COVID-19 and a pandemic collectively traumatizing the country.
There is vicarious trauma that involves watching someone else being traumatized (and being traumatized from watching it). This even occurs when you are the one traumatizing others and being traumatized by the harm you inflicted, e.g. Police joining the force to protect and serve but finding themselves in a militarized and violent force.
Trauma can lead to a variety of symptoms such as your body tensing at the mention of a trigger (i.e., a traumatic event, the name of an abuser, smells) or dissociating from the present moment and behaving more distantly and aloof in response to triggers. Each individual’s response to trauma is different, and trauma manifests itself different in our minds and bodies.
Do I have trauma?
There’s a variety of forms of trauma and a plethora of ways to become traumatized, and the answer is: yes, most likely.
But how?? And traumatized by what? In their book, Resmaa Menakem articulates an exercise that helps us reflect on our body and how our bodies can let us know what traumas we may have.
A brief review of the history of the United States gives us a hint at what trauma may have been passed onto us through the generations — Europeans leaving Europe to come to the Americas, Africans being forcibly removed from their countries to be enslaved in a foreign country, individuals being persecuted for their religious faith, individuals fleeing their war-torn home country as refugees in search of a better future, and so much more. These traumas have most likely manifested in our families, our culture, our governments, and our schools as they proliferated from one individual to another.
How do I prevent myself from passing on trauma?
Heal. As Menakem states in their book:
“All of us need to metabolize the trauma, work through it, and grow up out of it with our bodies, not just our thinking brains. Only in this way will we heal at last, both individually and collectively. … Healing involves discomfort, but so does refusing to heal. And, over time, refusing to heal is always more painful.”— Resmaa Menakem, “My Grandmother’s Hands”
Healing from hundreds and thousands of years of intergenerational trauma in addition to more recent vicarious and collective traumas is a lot of work. And it most likely will not happen overnight. It may not happen within a month or a year. Healing is a continuous process, just like how learning and growing are continuous. We must constantly learn, grow, and heal.
Tools for Healing
In this current climate, there is a lot of trauma. There’s evidence of existing traumas coming to light as individuals react to each other with violence, and there’s evidence of people being traumatized currently by that same violence. There’s activists and organizers on the road to burnout and exhaustion with their constant advocating for justice, and there’s individuals who may have already burnt out and are feeling guilty for not being at full capacity to be at the frontlines of these movements.
“But I don’t have time to heal! They need me!” It is easy to feel guilty for not contributing and for taking time to rest and heal, but refusing to engage in self care is engaging in capitalist definitions of self-worth and defining ourselves based on our productivity. Taking care of yourself and allowing yourself to recharge when you need to is inherently anti-capitalist and will for sure ensure sustainable movements and be great for the long-term change we want to see.
Regardless of the source of your trauma, I hope that the resources below can be helpful tools for healing.
When the term ‘mindfulness’ is used, one may think of mindfulness meditations. Sitting somewhere quiet, cross-legged with our eyes closed. This is not the only form of mindfulness.
- Staying present in the moment
- Focusing on one thing at a time
- Approaching yourself and others non-judgementally
If sitting meditation is not for you, there are walking meditations. There are mindfulness meditations for laying down. Mindful breathing exercises are short and simple. There are also mindful eating exercises. Some may enjoy mindful coloring books/apps. One can argue that you can make any activity ‘mindful’ — as long as you stay present in the moment, focus on that one activity, and approach yourself/others without judgement.
Practicing mindfulness allows us to free our mind of all other thoughts and to give our brain some space. Our brain is constantly thinking and we can’t blame it — there’s so much to think about. But thinking about so many things all the time is tiring, and our brain needs rest. Even focusing on our breaths for a minute can make the greatest difference to our mind and our body.
Writing and Reflection Exercises
Journalling thoughts and writing down experiences is a great way to practice engaging with our experiences. Oftentimes, traumas are repressed as we distance ourselves from the painful or stressful memories. By writing down our experiences and processing them on paper (or on screen/computer), we are engaging with our narrative and healthily distancing ourselves from it. “Here it is on this paper/screen” instead of “the memories are in my head and I don’t know where it is”.
Some may enjoy journalling daily, weekly, monthly while others may enjoy journalling whenever you see fit. Engaging with our experiences helps us process and come to terms with what happened instead of distancing, avoiding, and suppressing traumatic experiences that may reemerge later.
Journalling not for you? Try writing letters! These do not necessarily have to be sent to a recipient but writing in the form of a letter may make it seem less like “yelling into the void” by addressing someone in your letter. You can write the letter to a friend, family member, unknown third party (to whom it may concern), or yourself! (In this post, I outlined writing self compassion letters to yourself.)
Checking in on yourself and others
Sometimes we may have difficulty keeping ourselves accountable to check in on ourselves. It is easy to forget how tired we are or how stressed we feel when we are so engaged in what we’re doing. To keep ourselves accountable for checking in on ourselves, it may be helpful to recruit the help of those in your community. Just as much as you might not be checking in with yourself, your friend might also not be doing the same for themselves. So? Checkin with each other!
During your checkins with yourself and each other, make sure to not only focus on one component of health. Checkin with your community’s mental health, physical health, and social health. Checkin with how your bodies feel in reaction to current events or in response to each other. Checkin with how your relationship to each other feels in this moment. Checkin with how you can support each other and what support you need for yourself.
Just like how trauma can be experienced as an individual or as a community, so can healing. Healing doesn’t have to be an independent process but can be a journey for your entire community to embark on. I encourage everyone reading to be there for each other and be there for yourself to promote healing and growth.