For Some In Kansas City, News From The Capitol Isn't Just Disturbing, It's Traumatic
People targeted by the symbols on display during last week's insurrection might be experiencing historical trauma, also known as intergenerational trauma. Here's what it is, and how it can be triggered by the news.
On Jan. 6, as I tracked news from the U.S. Capitol from the safety of my home, my pulse quickened and my hands began to shake. I watched as people bearing symbols threatening violence against me ("Camp Auschwitz" sweatshirts, Nazi flags) paraded through the halls of power, sending representatives of the institutions that should protect me into hiding.
It went on for a long time. The shaking persisted. The thumping in my chest did, too. And the sage inner voice that might normally tell me to step away from the newsfeed had straight-up abandoned me, leaving a strangely powerful physical energy in its place that kept my eyes tethered to the screen, my body immobilized.
I'd never responded to a news event in such a primal way and didn't understand, at first, what was happening to me.
I'm Jewish. I grew up in a community where Holocaust survivors were friends and relatives. Learning about this chapter in human history was not an academic experience for me. It was personal. I haven't forgotten the lesson in school: second grade, the teacher's cursive chalk handwriting slowly spelling out "6 million Jews" on the board. Like the memory of last Wednesday, that memory is physical. It's a feeling in my stomach, of holding my breath and the room going silent.
The more personal education was different. It was my step-grandfather crying every Thanksgiving as he remembered seeing the Statue of Liberty on the boat that brought him here in 1938. It was the Kansas City author of Growing Up In The Holocaust visiting my Hebrew class and signing the inside of my book with the words, "Dear Gina, may you and your loved ones never know the horrors of a Holocaust!"
It was my step-grandmother describing Kristallnacht. Her bags were already packed; in the middle of the night, with Nazis breaking glass within earshot, her parents told her to leave immediately. She never saw them again.
What my body felt, on Jan. 6, carried all of that and more.
Kortney Carr, a Kansas City therapist who specializes in trauma, says, "As a
person who does trauma work, I'm always asking people, 'How do you feel it, where do you feel it in your body?'"
Historical trauma, Carr says, is more than just awareness of painful history. It's lived experience passed down through behaviors and stories. Research is even underway to explore the possibility of genetics.
"It changes how we function, how we respond," explains Carr, a Black woman who responds viscerally to the story of slavery, and reminders of it. "I do not have any living ancestors who were slaves, but there is this piece that like, I know what slavery was about."
Last week's insurrection included symbols likely to be deeply disturbing to Black people, Indigenous Americans, and Muslims. And that's on top of the sight of an armed mob inciting chaos, posing an imminent threat to the lives of elected officials and their staffs, and not being stopped.
As I started to gain awareness, I began to wonder what others had been feeling that day. There are lots of people who experience daily racism in ways I probably can't begin to fathom, but who may very well have had similar reactions to other symbols on display. A noose. A confederate flag.
Erica Wilson of Lee's Summit, Missouri, immediately set about protecting herself upon seeing those things.
"To see the noose and the flags and the t-shirts, it was like, 'OK, we need to focus on what’s going on inside this house, inside these four walls."
Previous news-related traumas have taught Wilson, who is Black, to do that. The worst, for her, was the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
"I was pregnant then, and just scrolling on Twitter," she recalls. "I couldn’t unplug. I was just glued."
Wilson says she felt an obligation, back then, to stay informed.
"I needed to sleep and I wasn’t sleeping well. I needed to eat and I wasn’t eating well. My husband and I sat down and he was like, 'You have to close your laptop, you have to unplug.' He was like 'I know you want to raise awareness, but you are aware.'”
The instinct to limit news exposure was a good one. University of Missouri journalism professor Katherine Reed studies and teaches about the effects of wall-to-wall coverage of traumatic news events. She says it's not healthy to watch images or videos, over and over, of news events where people are perpetrating cruelty on each other.
"There's pretty good research that shows that it's not good for our mental health, it increases anxiety and depression," she reports.
Wilson now agrees. "We can’t thrive in a state of hypervigilance," she says.
"I have to physically do things to remind myself that I am here in the now."
She's been waking up before the sun rises and going outside, "just to feel how cold it is." Lately she's taken to going outside barefoot. She also likes to do things she can count on every single day, like watching the sun rise and set.
"It helps to remember that, as a Black woman, me thriving is rebellious in and of itself," Wilson says. "It’s the biggest middle finger to the people who would not like to see that. Every time I do little things like go to bed early or make sure that I’m hydrated, I’m taking some power back."
David Muhammad, a Kansas City teacher and martial arts instructor, as well as a Black man of Muslim faith, has been more affected by what he didn't see at the violation of the U.S. Capitol than what he did see.
Muhammad says he couldn't stop replaying scenes from Black Lives Matter protests in his mind, scenes that played out much differently. "I kept thinking, over and over, 'They didn't storm in, they were let in.'"
The thought wouldn't leave him alone. He coped, as he often does, by focusing on the kids he teaches.
"As an African-American man, as a Muslim, you kind of build up a pretty strong ability to deal with the BS," he says. "You learn how to continue moving forward."
On January 6, that meant stepping onto the mat.
"I was like, 'I'm going to be here for these kids.' You know what I mean? Like this is where, when everything else is crazy, you can come in here and you can punch and kick and jump and sweat."
After a week of processing and interviewing, an email shows up in my inbox about a meditation for intergenerational trauma, created especially for this moment, set to drop on Martin Luther King Day.
What the heck, I figure. It can't hurt.
After following the usual instructions (put your hands at your side, take a few deep breaths, etc.), a warm, soothing voice tells me I'm not alone; that I'm part of a strong, resilient community of people.
"Give thanks to those that have come before you," the voice instructs, "whether related to you by blood or by struggle."
I nod. I relax.
"Give thanks for those to come, knowing that these moments you're taking to heal now will positively impact them in years to come."
I picture my son. I hope she's right.