Healing through Grief, Racial Trauma, and Systemic Misattunement

Depression and Anxiety, Perfectionism, Trauma Recovery for High-Achievers

The month of May, coincidentally mental health awareness month, has given the world a glimpse inside the continuous reality of the existence of Black women and men in this country.  It has allowed other groups to fathom racism’s impact on the minds and nervous systems of strangers, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and family members who reside in Black bodies.  By default, it can be said that when Black, the nervous system remains in a constant sympathetic state of fight or flight.

To remain in existence while Black, one must constantly pick up on triggering environmental cues and somatic signals that help guide us along routes focused solely on survival.  Yet for Blacks, the sympathetic state, while effective at influencing critical decision making and behavioral responses, is also a reminder of the absence of ease and safety.  This absence of ease and safety highlights a form of complex trauma which can be defined as systemic mis-attunement.

Racial trauma is a result of pervasive exposure to prejudice and discrimination as a direct result of one’s skin color.  Systemic mis-attunement is the direct result of society’s recurrent act of being dismissive and uncaring as to the basic physiological, emotional, psychological, and social needs of People of Color (i.e. Black people).  The complex racial trauma lies in the constant exposure of mis-attunement that is often experienced by Blacks from birth.  After all, Black newborns are “three times more likely to experience health complications or die within their first year, than white infants” (Florido 2019).  This is due to the nationwide health disparities that cause Black women to experience worse birth outcomes than any other racial and ethnic group (Villarosa 2018).

With constant exposure to systemic mis-attunement since infancy, Blacks adopt survival strategies as armor towards a world that says everyone has a legitimate right to safety and care, but whose actions taken against Blacks over several centuries reflect the contrary.  Survival strategies that Blacks often adopt to cope are:

  • Caution when expressing needs publicly
  • Learning to unconsciously reject, minimize, or disconnect from needs if it means that these needs require help outside of one’s self and own community
  • Trying to outrun fear of inadequacy through hyper-productivity and achievement; inadequacy as internalized by systemic mis-attunement experiences
  • Immobilization or shutdown cycles within the nervous system as a result of the endless plight of endured racism and a sense of discouragement where the longing of safety is continuously unmet

As we enter the month of June, Blacks continue to bear both the uncertainties of this global pandemic and of life expectancy due to the growing murder count of unarmed Black men, women, and children in the U.S. It’s important that resources are shared in support of navigating the cyclical healing journey of systemic mis-attunement and racial trauma.  As a Black female therapist, I’ve noticed how restorative it can be to have an ongoing healing plan for dealing with grief, sadness, and anger related to current and past injustices faced by the Black community.  Here are some useful practices that I sincerely hope can help all of us, as we cope through these difficult times.

  1. Affirm and extend self-compassion by creating small practices throughout the day to consciously hold and release the many responses that are wrapped up in grief.  An act of self-compassion is to allow your emotions a physical release to ensure that you do not hold on to violence.
  2. Make an ongoing healing plan for grief, racial trauma, and systemic mis-attunement.  It’s important that this healing plan reflect realistic expectations for yourself and your needs.  It also helps to keep in mind that healing is cyclical, internal and external triggers will continuously resurface in life.  Be flexible with yourself.  Racial trauma and systemic mis-attunement are not experiences that you “get over”, they are deep wounds that take time, and unconditional care to heal.
  3. Create intentional alone time to unplug from social media outlets, news, and talks with others.  While these outlets (especially, while sheltering in place) can foster connectivity and increased awareness, they can also contribute to excessive amounts of stress on the nervous system.  To regulate and bring restoration to the nervous system and soul, lie down on a hard surface, take on the feeling of becoming grounded, and simply allow yourself to be.  Whether you’re taking notice to the silence, engaging in a guided meditation or simply using relaxation techniques, do as Rumi once said, “There is an inner voice that doesn’t use words. Listen.”
  4. Take care of your mind and body byfollowing a healthy sleep routine that is restorative, eat nutritious meals that strengthen your immune system, and engage in physical activity that allows your body to breathe.
  5. As you engage in this experiential work of racial activism, be gentle with yourself as you discover your role.  Abstain from “should’s and could’s” or comparison to others.  Attune to your own passion and let it draw you in the direction that better supports the cause.  Also, support trusted local organizers against anti-Black racism.
  6. Create a good playlist.  Audible inputs should validate your existence and the existence of those around you, affirm the inherent worth of Black bodies and your body, the resiliency of Blacks throughout history, and our right and your right to liberation.
  7. Repeat. Regularly repeat steps 1-6.

Recommended resources for use: Healing Racial Trauma by Sheila Wise Rowe, The Racial Healing Handbook by Anneliese Singh, and The Inner Work Racial Justice by Rhonda V. Magee.  I even recommend a good culturally aware podcast like, We’re Not So Different.  I have a featurette in episode 12, The Pressure of Color, where I go in depth on mis-attunement, somatic sensing, and hyper-productivity.  We’re Not So Different podcast can be found on both Apple and Google podcast platforms and Spotify.

Carmelle Ellison, LCSW

I help high-achieving adults, especially in the BIPOC community live authentically wholesome lives via telehealth therapy throughout California.


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