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The Trauma of Oppression

Six practical tools for navigating interpersonal and structural oppression

In recent decades, research has contributed to a more robust understanding of trauma and its impact on the body.  Yet, the trauma of oppression is infrequently centered in the national conversation about the many manifestations of trauma and its treatments.  Though this article will focus on race-based oppression, there are broader implications for the trauma associated with other identity-based oppression: sexism, heterosexism, ableism, classism, etc.  Derald Wing Sue et al.’s work demonstrates the deeply impactful nature of racial microaggressions and calls attention to the intensity of the shame, anger, sadness, and stress that many people of color experience as a byproduct of racism and white supremacy.

This resonates profoundly with my experience as a mixed race black woman, and also as a psychotherapist who often works with clients of color seeking to heal from the toxic effects of this specific kind of trauma. Traditionally, trauma is thought to occur when we witness, perceive, or experience a direct threat to our being.  While the consequences of oppression are often directly tied to mortality (for example: the effects of police brutality, lynchings, enslavement, and colonization), microaggressions and structural oppression also threaten our sense of personhood and humanity.

Often this amounts to a sense of dehumanization and inferiority, and can manifest as classic trauma-related symptoms: hypervigilance, avoidance, increased heart rate, intrusive thoughts, and trembling.  The line between what is physical and what is psychological is not as well-defined as we tend to conceptualize—our emotions are physiological responses that are intrinsically linked to both biological and social systems.  It’s no wonder that with our bodies in a chronic state of stressful arousal, we often see physical ailments at disproportionately higher rates among people of color, even when socioeconomic class is controlled for.

In therapy, facing this damage to body, spirit, and psyche often entails coming in close contact with powerful, distressing emotions, locating agency despite a sense of helplessness, connecting with community, and engaging the body’s resources in healing trauma. 

Below are six practical tools for navigating interpersonal and structural oppression:

Accept and validate

Many people find themselves reeling in the aftermath of a microaggression.  Sometimes referred to as “death by a thousand cuts”, these inflictions can feel disproportionately wounding.  Take stock of where your thoughts and feelings take you after experiencing a microaggression.  Do you feel guilty or responsible for what’s happened? Do you feel shame for not having spoken up? Are you telling yourself (or is someone else telling you) that it’s not that big a deal?  One of the most powerful things we can do for ourselves is to treat ourselves with compassion in these moments.  Allow your feelings to unfold by accepting them for what they are.  Challenge thoughts about yourself or your reaction that are hostile, invalidating, or derogatory.

Forgo perfection

Forgive yourself for not having the “perfect response” to someone who offends you. Regret and anger directed at oneself can bloom as we realize what we “should have” said or done.  Your primary responsibility in these moments is caring for yourself as tenderly as possible as it’s likely some difficult emotions are passing through you.

Practice radical self care

Practice being open-minded about what your needs are in a given moment.  Ask: do I need to numb out and watch Netflix or would I benefit from talking with a friend first? Include steps toward financial health and freedom as part of self-care.  “Treat yourself” doesn’t always mean buying something new or spending money on self-care items and experiences.

Breathe

Practice 4-7-8 breathing for a few minutes every day to cool off your nervous system.  In for 4, hold for 7, out for 8. Repeat the cycle 4 times. Over time, gradually work up to 8 cycles in one sitting.

Establish agency

If you have begun to feel out of control or disempowered, write down what is within your control.  Systems of oppression that have stood in place for hundreds of years may not be dismantled tomorrow.  What makes you feel empowered? How can you give back to your community? What does activism look like for you?  Can you get more sleep, establish better boundaries in your relationships, eat more nourishing meals, sit down for a 5 minute meditation, or drink more water? The collective impact of our daily habits sets the foundation for feeling more healthy, grounded, and connected.

Recognize the signs of trauma and seek support

Too often, we are told we should be able to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps.  What community resources are available to you?  Can you find a therapist you feel comfortable with and trust?  If therapy is not accessible, look for peer support groupsonline resources, books, by-donation yoga or meditation classes, and spend time with friends.  Know that interdependence is a key aspect of health and wellbeing—we are simply not built for complete self-sufficiency.  Find a safe space and put down what you’ve been shouldering on your own.  To find a therapist, I recommend the following databases: Therapy for Black GirlsZenCareThe National Queer and Trans Therapist of Color Network.

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