More than Meets the Eye!
Rick Wallace, Ph.D.
The Odyssey Project Journal of Scientific Research
African American Trauma
More than Meets the Eye
Dr. Rick Wallace, Ph.D.
Director of Research for The Odyssey Project Scientific Research Journal
Copyright 2016© — Rick Wallace
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African American Trauma: More than Meets the Eye
When I am addressing the current condition of the Black collective in America, and I mention
“intergenerational transmission of trauma,” as it is associated with the slavery experience, I will
generally meet a nullifidan response. Basically, individuals who do not understand how trauma
impacts the body and mind will have a difficult time comprehending how trauma can be
The average person tends to see a condition, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as a mental
condition, and they will omit or overlook the influence of the physiological implications
associated with trauma. The truth is that PTSD is first initiated through a physiological response
to a traumatic event (Kolk B. V., 2014). Additionally, very few people understand the impact of
cumulative adversity 1 (Seo, Tsou, Ansell, Potenza, & Sinha, 2013) on a group of people who are
consistently exposed to a wide spectrum of potentially traumatic events. Basically, it is
extremely difficult to heal the wounds from trauma when a person is consistently experiencing
new traumatic events.
As technology and the understanding of epigenetics increases, we are also learning that there are
genetic influences that have the capacity to facilitate the transmission of trauma across
In this brief treatise, I simply want to identify and introduce some of the common physiological
responses to trauma, and how they can be transmitted to the progeny of the person who
experienced the trauma.
Because PTSD is such a commonly used term that it is rarely understood in its totality, I will use
it as the primary condition to bear out my position on the intergenerational transmission of
trauma. It is important to understand that this is not meant to be a comprehensive exploration of
trauma, or its generational perpetuation. I am simply attempting to create the foundation on
which those who seek empirical and pragmatic evidence to support the idea of generational
trauma will be able to begin the process of compiling data and analyzing it.
The first thing that we must do is develop a clear understanding of the definition of PTSD, which
is defined by the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual 5 as the displaying of certain characteristic
symptoms following exposure to one or more traumatic events. Some of the characteristics
associated with PTSD include, but are not limited to emotional reactions (including helplessness,
fear and horror), elevated startle response, hypervigilance, problems with concentration, reckless
or self-destructive behavior, sleep disturbance, fear of a foreshortened future, etc. (Staff, 2013).
Cumulative Adversity: Cumulative adversity is simply the exposure to a wide spectrum of potentially traumatic
events, which can result in either depletion — making the individual or group more vulnerable to being traumatized,
or it can also foster resilience (Bonnano et al, 2011; Ryff, et al, 2012; Seery et al, 2010)
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Something else worth noting concerning PTSD is that the person being traumatized does not
have to be directly involved in the traumatic event. For instance, there are people who have never
been to New York City who suffer from some level of PTSD as a result of the events that
occurred on 9/11. Additionally, susceptibility to traumatic influence depends on a number of
One component of the PTSD matrix that has always given me cause for concern is the high
comorbidity rate associated with PTSD. Individuals who suffer with PTSD are 80 percent more
likely, than those without PTSD, to be a victim of a dual-diagnosis, having extraneous symptoms
that meet the diagnostic criteria for at least one other mental disorder (e.g., depressive, anxiety,
substance abuse disorders, bipolar disorder, and more) (Staff, 2013).
Following is a list of physical responses to trauma.
Sudden sweating and/or heart palpitations (fluttering)
Aches and pains like headaches, backaches, stomach aches
Increased use of alcohol, drugs or overeating (self-medicating)
Constipation or diarrhea
Easily startled by noises or unexpected touch (elevated startle response)
Increased susceptibility to colds, viruses and other illnesses
Changes in sleep patterns (sleep disruptions), interest in sex and appetite
*Note: Each of the above physiological symptoms have the capacity to cause harmful secondary
symptoms as well, creating a cascading physical effect.
Here is a small portion of the emotional responses to the exposure to a traumatic event.
Diminished interest in everyday activities or depression
A loss of a sense of order in the world; expectation of doom and fear of the future
Shock and disbelief
Grief, disorientation, denial
Fear and/or anxiety
Emotional swings — such as crying and then laughing
Irritability, outbursts of anger or rage, restlessness
Worrying or ruminating — intrusive thoughts of the trauma
Flashbacks — an experience in which the victim reacts as if the trauma is happening all
And much more…
According to Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, arguably the foremost expert in trauma experience and
trauma memory, when people who have been traumatized are presented with certain stimuli,
such as sounds, images or thoughts related to their particular traumatic experience, the amygdala
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portion of the brain reacts with immediate alarm, even when the original experience may be 10
or more years in the past (Kolk B. V., 2014).
This startled response will trigger a cascade of stress hormones and nerve impulses that can drive
up the person’s blood pressure, oxygen intake and heart rate — preparing the body for fight,
flight or freeze mode. The problem is that most of these instances in which these stimuli are
presented are not threatening events; however, the physical consequences of the constant
elevation of stress hormones are real.
Basically, their body re-experiences rage, terror and helplessness, as well as the strong impulse
to fight or flee; however, these feelings are virtually impossible for the individual to articulate.
Trauma, by nature, pushes a person to the edge of cognitive or mental comprehension, separating
the person from any language based on common experience.
Shifting to One Side of the Brain
For the last 30 years, there has been a growing amount of literature that has sensationalized the
idea of left-brainers (those who function from the platform of logic and reason) vs. right-brainers
(those who are more intuitive, creative and artistic). While this idea seemed more novel than
scientific 30 years ago, there is a growing wealth of empirical data that reveals that the left and
right brain speak two different languages — the left is linguistic, analytical and sequential, while
the right is emotional, intuitive, spatial, visual and tactual. Basically, the left side of the brain
facilitates the ability to speak in a lucid form, and the right side houses the capacity for
experiential expression, communicating through facial expressions and body language.
In the womb, it is the right side of the brain that develops first, and it actually allows for the nonverbal
communication between mothers and infants. The primary indication that the left side of
the brain has come on line is when the infant begins to understand and respond to verbal
The manner in which the left and right side of the brain processes past experiences is
dramatically distinct as well. The left brain has the capacity to store and recall facts, statistics and
facts of specific events, allowing us to recall events, while placing them in sequential order. The
right brain stores the memories of touch, sound, smell and the emotions that these stimuli evoke.
The right brain responds to voices, gestures and facial features, as well as places that have been
experienced in the past.
While it has become popular to categorize people as right-brainers or left-brainers, the truth is
that under normal conditions, both sides of the brain functions synergistically — working
together to experience, process, record and recall life experiences. However, having one side of
the brain shut down, even temporarily can be extremely disabling. The deactivation of the right
side of the brain will have an immediate and significant impact on the ability to properly
organize and process an experience into logical sequences — making it impossible to effectively
translate the experience so that it can be explained. This type of deactivation happens frequently
during traumatic events.
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Without proper sequencing, it is impossible for humans to identify cause and effect, comprehend
the long-term implications associated with our actions, or create coherent goals and plans for the
future. This state of reality associated with trauma can explain a substantial part of the behavior
of the Black collective in general. Now, combine this one psycho-physiological response to
trauma with other conditions, such as Collective Cognitive Bias Reality Syndrome (Wikipedia,
2014; Wilke & Mata, 2012; Wood, 2016; Wallace, 2015), epigenetic influences on trauma and
traumatic susceptibility, etc. You will begin to understand the dilemma we are facing, or should I
say, the dilemma we need to face.
The tendency of blacks to ignore or deny the presence of certain mental conditions may mask the
presence of conditions such as PTSD, PTSS, depression and more, but it does not alleviate the
impact. A substantial portion of our social and economic immobility can be directly linked to the
existence of trauma. In fact, my work has produced multitudinous occurrences in which African
American trauma was not the central focus, but proved highly prevalent in the findings.
Simply put, when certain stimuli remind a traumatized individual of their past experience, the
right side of their brain begins to dominate the experience, causing them to believe that they are
currently experiencing the event. In fact, traumatize people, who are not effectively treated, live
their entire life through the paradigm created by that traumatic event that caused their trauma.
When a traumatized person has a triggered episode in which they relive the experience of their
trauma, any young children who may be present will sense the heighten anxiety, tension, fear and
terror, and while they may not understand why the person is behaving that way, they will
develop a tendency to respond the same way when they sense that stimuli. In fact, when this
happens, the brain’s circuitry will literally rewire itself to instinctively respond to that particular
stimulus the same way each time. This is why some people cannot explain what triggered their
anxiety attacks, because it is a learned behavior that has been passed down without explanation.
Of course, the intergenerational transmission of trauma is immensely more complex than what is
presented here, but this should be sufficient to provide at least a limited perspicacity of how
easily trauma can be passed down, as well as how trauma tends to perpetuate itself when not met
with direct intervention measures. ~ Dr. Rick Wallace, Ph.D.
Additional Resource by Dr. Wallace:
The Music is Life Program for Youth
The Mis-education of Black Youth in America
African American Inner-City Violence
The Invisible Father: Reversing the Curse of a Fatherless Generation
When Your House is Not a Home
Epigenetics in Psychology: The Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma in African Americans
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Molestation, Incest & Rape in African American Families
Racial Trauma & African Americans
African Americans & Depression: Denying the Darkness
The Feminization & Emasculation of the Black Male Image
African American Genocide in America
You can support Dr. Wallace’s work with The Odyssey Project HERE!
Abraham, C. (2014). Transmission of Trauma 3. Dublin Business School .
Danieli, Y. (1997). International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma. The
National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
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Healing. Portland, OR: Uptone Press.
Gregoire, C. (2014, December 28). How the Effects of Trauma Can be Passed Down From One
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Kardiner, A. (1941). The Traumatic Neurosis of War. New York: Hoeber.
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with Laboratory Methods. Trauma and Cognitive Science Haworth Press, Inc.
Kolk, B. V. (1987). Psychological Trauma. American Psychiatric Press.
Kolk, B. V. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. New York: Penguin Publishers.
Levin, P. (2003). Common Responses to Trauma — and Coping Strategies. Levin Journa of
Lloyd, D. A., & Turner, R. J. (2003). Cumulative Adversity and Postraumatic Stress Disorder:
Evidence From a Diverse Community Sample of Adults. American Journal of
Mullan-Gonzalez, J. (2012). Slavery and the Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma in Inner
City African American Male Youth: A Model Program—from the Cotton Fields to the
Concrete Jungle. California Institute of Integral Studies.
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Seo, D., Tsou, K., Ansell, E., Potenza, M., & Sinha, R. (2013). Cumulative Adversity sensitizes
neural response to acute stress: Association with Health Symptoms. National Institutes of
Staff, E. (2013). DSM-5. American Psychiatric Publishing.
Wallace, R. (2015). Collective Cognitive-bias Reality Syndrome. The Odyssey Project Journal
of Research and Cognitive Enrichment!
Wallace, R. (2015). Epigenetics in Psychology: The Genetic Intergenerational Transmission of
Trauma in African Americans. The Rick Wallace Social Research & Cognitive
Wikipedia. (2014, April 15). Cognitive Bias. Retrieved from Wikipedia:
Wilke, A., & Mata, R. (2012). Cognitive Bias. Encyclopedia of Human Behavior.
Wood, J. M. (2016). 20 Cognitive Bias that Affect Your Decisions. Mental Floss.
Ximena, F., & Ximena, G. (2015). Pyshcological Trauma Transmission and Appropriation in
Grandchildren of Former Political Prisoners of the Civic - Military Dictatorship in Chile
(1973-1990). Journal of social Science Education.
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