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Traumatic stress overwhelms people of color from video release

Anger, sadness, fear, worry, helplessness and hopelessness are flood of emotions

CHICAGO --- Communities of color are feeling traumatic stress after a series of events including the recent release of a Chicago police bodycam video showing the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo. A Minnesota officer is also being charged in the fatal shooting of a 20-year-old motorist as the trial of Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer accused of killing George Floyd, continues.

Northwestern Medicine psychologist Inger Burnett-Ziegler discusses the trauma to people of color, how it affects their lives and behavior, and how they can find solace. She also suggests what white people can do to support their friends.

Burnett-Ziegler is an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Contact her at  iburnette@nm.org.

What is the effect of viewing the fatal shooting of Adam Toledo, in addition to other police shootings? Is the trauma cumulative?

“Witnessing traumatic events through news reports or social media can trigger a traumatic stress response whereby an individual experiences a range of emotions including anger, sadness, fear, worry, helplessness and hopelessness. This stress response can be exacerbated when one is repeatedly exposed to traumatic events, such as the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last year and the recent deaths of Adam Toledo and Daunte Wright this year. Repeated exposure to trauma is associated with poor mental and physical health outcomes.”

How does this trauma affect people of color in their day-to-day lives?

“People who have experienced a trauma might find themselves frequently thinking about the traumatic event, finding it difficult to think about anything else, avoiding people, places or things that remind them of the event. They may feel down or depressed. For people of color, who have higher rates of exposure to trauma, traumatic events that occur in the media can be especially triggering and have a compounding effect. 

“In this case, people may find the news triggering memories of their own traumatic pasts or experience significant fear and worry about the safety and well-being of their family and other loved ones. This fear can be especially debilitating when there is a sense that there is no where they can go and nothing that they can do to guarantee safety.”

How do people behave when they are feeling traumatized? 

“When people are experiencing traumatic stress, they may feel irritable, angry, keyed up, nervous or on edge. Their stress response system is more easily activated, and they may quickly go into fight or flight mode if they perceive a threat or danger. They may have a difficult time engaging with others and withdraw from friends and family. Because their mind is focused on the trauma, they might have difficulty with attention and concentration and find it hard to be productive at work.”

What can people do to find comfort or solace?

“In order to cope with racial violence and racial trauma, it is important to acknowledge your feelings, know that your experience is valid and lean into spaces where you feel supported and safe. Identify triggers for traumatic stress (i.e., social media) and set boundaries around how much of the content that you take in. Finally, resist the urge to internalize negative messages about your sense of self-worth and honor your inherent value.” 

How can non-Black people show their support? 

“Non-Black people can demonstrate their allyship by taking concrete steps to educate themselves on the ways that institutional racism is perpetuated in organizations in which they sit. More broadly they can examine the role that they have in maintaining these systems, and demonstrate their support by lifting up Black voices, making space for Black people in positions of leadership and donating time and money to anti-racism work.

“People of color can't continue to be left to grapple with the trauma that society produces. It is up to us as a broad collective to change the social and cultural structures environmental systems that continue to produce this trauma.”