On Sunday, close to 1,000 people gathered in Brooklyn at Herbert Von King Park to collectively meditate. The last moments were dedicated to remembering the excruciating length of time that George Floyd, whose killing set off a global wave of protest, was pushed to the ground, a police officer pressing his knee into his neck.
Today, the simple act of taking a deep breath feels like self-care.
The hardships and inconceivable loss that have occurred since 1619, when the first enslaved people were brought to America, including Jim Crow, mass incarceration and police brutality, have caused incalculable trauma to black people.
Direct experiences of trauma can result in depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, body tension and chronic fatigue, according to Dr. Andrea Roberts, a senior research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who studies the health effects of trauma.
“Physically it manifests itself as increased hormone reactions to stimulate bodies becoming frozen,” said Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, the author of “The Body Keeps The Score.” “Life expectancy is shorter and immune systems get altered by trauma.”
But while research around an individual’s trauma is more established, the research on “intergenerational trauma” — trauma passed on through the generations — and its impact, is still emerging.
There is one small study from 2018 that suggests that trauma leaves a mark on a person’s genes, making trauma something that could be passed down.
That study drew serious skepticism. But more established are passed-down behaviors that affect the children of people who have been abused.
“The research is in a state now where we can say offspring are affected but we don’t really understand the mechanism,” said Dr. Rachel Yehuda, the director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
The first step, according to Dr. Yehuda, is to understand people in the context of who their parents and grandparents are, and what their cultural identity is.
“We’re under tremendous stress today,” said Dr. Kirkland C. Vaughans, a clinical psychologist at Adelphi University. “These killings reawaken old wounds and don’t allow them to be put to rest. You are unable to resolve the past trauma because you’re faced with the constant stress of just surviving today.”
Past trauma, generational trauma and current trauma are all compounded when black people are today still dealing with hardships put on them by systems — education, health, criminal justice — that were not built to serve them, even while still seeking basic rights and recognition at protests in every state in the country.
Self-care, Resistance, Exhaustion, Wisdom
Feminist authors like Audre Lorde and bell hooks have written about self-care as an instrument in the constant battle against oppression. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” wrote Ms. Lorde of living with cancer and the need to resist overextending herself.
Many black people may still be trying to survive but that might look different now. Healers and facilitators who focus on meditation, yoga, breath work and rest, among other measures — all of which, they say, can release trauma in the body — are gaining momentum.
Breath work is what can be considered a body-based or thematic kind of therapy.
“A lot of it has to do with ancestral feelings,” said Siedeh Foxie, 34, a therapeutic breath work facilitator who focuses on trauma. “Black people, as a result of chattel slavery here in the United States, have all of that and are reliving that constantly.”
Ms. Foxie uses accelerated breath work or a fast deep diaphragmatic breathing that she said creates a lot of energy and heat in the body. Her sessions are at least two hours long. The first 15 to 30 minutes are about listening and actively looking for what is coming up. Then Ms. Foxie moves into active meditation, or breath work. She then goes into the more spiritual aspect of healing, including energy clearing. Sometimes she uses sound healing, active-touch Reiki and visualization techniques. The last 30 to 45 minutes of the session are for her clients to share their experiences.
“Getting a face mask, watching a fun TV show on Netflix and drinking some wine, I’m not knocking that at all,” Ms. Foxie said. But she also suggests using breath work as a way to learn how to respond, instead of react, to their trauma.
For Tricia Hersey, the founder — or bishop, as she refers to herself — of the Nap Ministry, an organization that believes that the power of rest, slowing down and lying down is the best way to cope with trauma. She learned the skill from her grandmother, who grew up in Mississippi and, out of fear that she or her brothers would be lynched, migrated to Chicago. She remembers watching her meditate for 30 minutes during the day.
“That fact that we are still here shows that there is also intergenerational wisdom,” Ms. Hersey said. “We forget to speak about that, how do we move past the trauma to see the wisdom?”
Ms. Hersey believes that a way to access our wisdom is by napping: “Rest is a great thing. Rest is resistance, it’s reparations.”
From a biological standpoint, sleep does appear to restore the brain. Scientists have discovered that a proper slumber may allow your brain to rid itself of what it does not need and reboot.
“Our legacy is a legacy of exhaustion,” Ms. Hersey said. “Rest is key to connecting to the wisdom of our ancestors and creating a new world. It is pushing back against white supremacy and capitalism.”
Lauren Ash, a yoga and meditation teacher and the founder of Black Girl in Om, a wellness website, uses yoga as a way to stay present.
“With yoga, it is being in communion with what is,” said Ms. Ash. “It is the process to returning again and again to the present moment.”
While these different methods are a form of support for those dealing with trauma, the ultimate healer would be a national acknowledgment of the suffering and loss that black people have faced for 400 years, according to Dr. Vaughans.
“One of the requirements for healing is mourning,” said Dr. Vaughans. “In order to mourn one’s pain and suffering, the trauma itself, has to be acknowledged. This country has done everything it could in order not to acknowledge it. Not only re-victimized but then blamed them for the very condition that they suffered.”
“This trauma is not post,” Dr. Vaughans said. “It is very current. It is going on every day.”