The healing of trauma begins when the traumatized body can tell that it is safe.
The body’s feeling of safety is not the same as the rational part of the brain thinking “I ought to feel safe now.” It’s also not the same thing as the rational part of the brain believing, “I feel safe now.” The body is safe when the reptilian part of the brain feels safe, and with it, the amygdala, and the limbic brain (which is connected to the reptilian brain through the amygdala). It takes practice for the rational brain to learn to “listen” to the “lower” parts of the brain and be able to tell the difference between “safe” and “unsafe.”
Once the body actually feels safe, healing can finally begin. Just like a wild animal that hides under a bush and trembles after the predator runs by, our bodies need to feel safe before we can allow ourselves to relax enough to heal. We need to know when it is safe enough to turn off “high alert” and go into “rest and restore” mode. This is because the body can tell that the present moment is sufficently different from the moment of the traumatic episode. That now is different from then. Danger is passed and we can let down our guard.
It’s hard to heal the ongoing trauma of racism because there is no end to the traumatizing “event.” And because of how collective, long lasting, and inter-generationally accumulated racial trauma is, the body must check and recheck many times over before it can feel assured that it is now safe enough. And settling into safety is not instant, of course, if it happens at all; settling into the felt sense of safety is gradual, uneven, and very tentative if the traumatic event was extreme enough, (or even mild, but over a very long stretch of time). The replay of violence happening to people of color, coupled with the micro-aggressions, intolerance, and the everyday unaware, even well-intentioned, replay of white supremacy culture keeps people of color in a constant state of fear and self-defense. Too scared to fully heal from two hundred plus years of degradation, violence, threat, belittlement, humiliation, displacement, and abandonment.
(A note to readers: if you would like to participate in a private discussion of the ideas raised in this article, please join me and my friends and colleagues in a private Facebook Group I created for these purposes called: Together We Thaw).