Trauma Within Black Bodies
By: Laura Toller
Trauma changes our physiology. Exposure to early adversity affects the developing brains and bodies of children. It has the ability to affect brain structure and function development, the immune system, the hormone system, and the way DNA is read and transcribed. Trauma activates our body’s stress response system regulating our fight-or-flight response. According to Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, when the human body is threatened, it prepares to respond by increasing its heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones, like cortisol.
However, when the system is overactivated through adverse experiences, it goes from being adaptive and lifesaving to maladaptive and health damaging. According to a TED Talk given by Pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris, children are especially sensitive because their bodies are just developing. Stress responses of this nature can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity like the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship and racism, two common traumatic experiences African Americans may face from a young age. This type of over-activation of the stress response system can disrupt the development of the brain and other organs, as well as increase the risk for mental and physical health issues well into one’s adult years.
Dr. Harris studied the impact of childhood trauma on individuals over their lifespan and found it dramatically increases the risk for developing seven out of the ten leading causes of death in the United States and can potentially reduce life expectancy by 20 years. This led to an adverse childhood experience research study, which asked adults about exposure to experiences and correlated scores to health outcomes.
About 67 percent of the sampled population had at least one adverse experience. The higher amounts of adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and later health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse, and depression.
Poverty is one example of an adverse childhood experience that African Americans face because of the environment the child is forced to grow up in. The way genes are expressed depends partly on the environment the individual is exposed to.
Brain structures that are tied to processes critical for learning and educational functioning are vulnerable to the environmental circumstances of poverty, such as elevated life stressors, less caregiving support, limited stimulation, and nutrition. This trauma can contribute to intellectual deficits in development and have a lasting effect on an individual across a lifetime.
Racism is another example of an adverse childhood experience that can have a lasting, traumatizing effect on the mental and physical health of African Americans. The unfortunate effect of structural racism is that it has a violent impact on black communities, including insufficient access to nutritious food options, poorer education systems, and insufficient quality healthcare or even access to healthcare at all.
Nancy Krieger, professor of social epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, discussed the relationship between racism and black infant mortality, finding that the mortality rate among black infants in the U.S. is more than twice that of white infants. Evidence suggests that a key factor may be traumatic stress among black mothers caused by racial discrimination. Years of dealing with discrimination and other stressful effects of racism, while living in poor, segregated neighborhoods, can lead to a physical, mental, and emotional toll taken on the body, prompting biological changes in women that can affect the health of their children.