5 Ways to Manage the Trauma of Being You

By: Marcello Gonzales, LPC

Ever just been treated unfairly just for being you?  Maybe it was the color of your skin? Your sexuality? Both?  These or similar mistreatments because of your identities, can result in traumatic experiences.

In the current climate, people are talking about traumas related to identity. Whether it be in the news, social media or within our day to day lives it seems as though awareness of divisiveness has increased and with that an increased potentiality of experiencing identity-related trauma. When speaking of identity-related trauma it’s particularly important to acknowledge that those who hold a minority identity are most at risk. Those not in the majority are most likely to experience oppression and discrimination which increase the likelihood of experiences of identity-related trauma.

In particular, when we think of visible minorities (i.e people of color, those distinctive religious identities, etc.) experiences of identity-related traumas are compounded by baseline identity-related stress (This is stress that is experience simply because of who you are and how the society at-large sees or treat you.).

Whether in overt or covert forms, prejudice (Prejudice refers to any negative beliefs, feelings, judgments, or opinions we hold about people based on their group membership.), discrimination (Discrimination occurs when a person is harassed or treated less favorably because of their membership in a particular group.) racism (Racism is racial prejudice that has been incorporated into the functions of major institutions, corporations, and social systems such as universities, healthcare organizations, banking, housing, and governmental policies.) or microaggressions (Microaggressions are comment or action that subtly expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group which often reinforces a stereotype. eg. “I don’t see you as color”, “You don’t talk black”, “Wow, you’re so well spoken”, “You’re pretty for a dark-skin girl”, touching someone’s hair without asking and commenting on the texture, etc.), these are all potentially detrimental to well-being. Repeated identity-related trauma puts your emotional, psychological and physical well-being at risk.

Being faced with identity-related trauma can create psychological distress that can be represented for example through: Anger, Anxiety, Fear, Frustration, Depression, Helplessness, Hopelessness, Isolation, Internalization, Mistrust, Paranoia, Resentment, Sadness, Self-Blame, and Self-doubt.

These feelings can also lead to:

  1. Increased suspicion and hypervigilance – Suspicion of social institutions, only trusting persons within our social and family relationship networks.
  1. Loss of future – Living in a chronic state of danger can inhibit abilities to focus on long-term goals.
  1. Increased potential for substance use – Drugs and alcohol are initially useful in managing the resulting pain, danger, and isolation associated with unresolved traumas but do not directly address the trauma or provide closure and come with the potential risk of dependency.
  1. Increased sensitivity to threats – Avoiding new situations, heightened sensitivity to being disrespected and shamed, and avoiding risks.
  1. Stereotype threat – The fear that one’s actions will confirm existing stereotypes about a person’s self-identified group.
  1. Exacerbation/Increase in psychological/physiological symptoms – Increase in chronic stress and decrease immune system functioning, increased risks for depression and anxiety disorders.
  1. Increased aggression – Heightened stress can often lead to a decrease in patience and without alternative coping strategies to manage feelings of sadness, fear or hurt increased aggression can be the ultimate result.

Although these coping strategies may work for a time and are very natural reactions they ultimately are many times ineffective as they do not address processing the experience identity-related trauma. Many are still left with those feelings described above.

What’s important after experiencing identity-related trauma is to take steps to effectively work on self-care.

  1. Community– Connecting with those who you’ve identified as empathetic, validating, and supportive of assisting you in processing your feelings with them. Many may find that also sharing their stories/experiences may not only be cathartic but can be empowering through the encouragement of others.
  1. Mindful Isolation – When possible disconnect from triggering interactions or other situations that might elicit the fight or flight response. Taking steps to specifically manage your intake of information also is important when thinking of mindful isolation. For example with social media or news, it may be important to choose when to consume information so you are not constantly bombarded with triggering stimulus.
  1. Release Energy – Find ways to exert physical energy. Whether it be a bike ride, run, walk, gym or sport, physical movement can help release feelings of anxiety or intense anger.
  1. Confront Sources of Trauma – For some self-care may be a focus on empowerment, which means confront sources of trauma. This may be through requesting that encouraging or requesting workplace diversity meetings/dialogue take place, participating in protest/rallies, becoming politically active, sharing stories publicly, identifying how to assist/empower others.
  1. Ask for Help – If you find yourself unable to cope try finding a support group or a therapist can be a way to start finding new ways to cope.