To Confront Effects of Trauma, Start with Self-Care
The crowd inside a Minneapolis church hall reflects the U.S. in its full-blown diversity. People of all ages, ethnicities, and races—dressed in sagging jeans and business suits, yoga pants and firefighter uniforms, hijabs and baseball caps— stream through the door on a bright spring morning.
At a time when the country seems divided into ever-smaller camps, what brings 130 people from different walks of life together in this one place? The answer, it turns out, is as simple as it is complex —the experience of trauma, and each person’s search for answers in overcoming its far-reaching effects.
“Mix it up a bit and find someone who doesn’t look much like you for a conversation,” encourages the host, Marnita Schroedl, a mixed-race woman with cropped hair. Trauma entered her life early, she explains, when “my White grandmother gave my mother the choice of giving me up or being banished from the family.”
Her mother chose her family over her child, who, by age 3, had lived in three foster homes. “Eventually I grew exhausted of being angry all the time,” she explains. As a result, her life’s mission became to connect and heal people through her organization, Marnita’s Table.
This gathering inside the church is called “Tips and Techniques for Resilience,” and is one in a series presented by the Catalyst Initiative, a project of the Minneapolis Foundation aimed at honoring and fostering culturally authentic self-care practices.
A quick tour of the place turns up demonstrations of bodywork, art therapy, relaxation, and other treatments that go beyond the usual approaches to trauma. A sign taped to the wall reads: “Meditation and mindfulness exercise proved more successful than group therapy to treat PTSD at the Minneapolis Veterans Administration clinic.”
Promoting innovative methods of self-care is central to Catalyst’s goal of improving health by addressing the effects of trauma embedded deep inside people—even if the original source of harm has ended. The trauma can include adverse childhood experiences, racial oppression, sexual and domestic abuse, violence, poverty, war, gender and LGBTQ discrimination, and other forms of acute stress.
An adverse childhood experience, in particular, “causes changes in the architecture of the brain that affect everything from physical growth to emotional development,” according to a Minnesota Department of Health report.
“We all have an innate capacity to heal,” Catalyst director Suzanne Koepplinger says. “But to tap into that, first we must recognize that trauma lives in our mind, body, and spirit. Therefore, the healing must take place in our mind, body and spirit.
“This is an empowering model,” she says. “Most people want to help heal themselves, not be wholly dependent on drugs and hospitals.”
Every Breath You Take
In a packed breakout session at the back of the church hall, mental health consultant and coach Drake Powe describes the long-term effects of trauma as “existential fatigue—the feeling that you can’t keep on going. You are worn thin by worry and disappointment.”
He tells his own story of growing up as an African-American in a predominantly White neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. “I was chased a lot. I had to always change my route home from school. I was in a constant state of fight or flight. Who’s around me? What might happen next? Where’s my way out?”
Powe thought he had put this behind him until debilitating panic attacks started in his 20s. That’s when he realized how much anger was still coursing through his body. Picking up on an interest in meditation first sparked by the 1970s TV show Kung Fu, he began an eclectic spiritual journey that led him to Buddhism, Sufism, Christian mystics, and Jewish teachings.
“From all of this, I learned how to frame things in a way that makes me feel empowered in the moment, which offers a sense of internal safety,” he says. “Either you are in charge of your emotions, or they are in charge of you.”
He instructs the group to take deep breaths, holding each for a few seconds before breathing out with a decisive “ah.”
“I bet you weren’t thinking about a lot of other stuff while you were doing this,” Powe tells them. “This shows you are more than just your thought process.”
Everyone can benefit from self-care, Powe says. “Most people have a retirement strategy but don’t have a stress-reduction strategy, which is at least as important.”
Expanding Our Approach to Healing
Research shows that 80% of our health is attributable to nonmedical factors such as our neighborhood, social ties, economic opportunities, personal behavior, family background, and mental state.
“That’s why we need to build resilience and healing into our daily lives, not only as a preventive strategy to promote well-being, but also a response to the growing health, social and economic gaps in society,” Koepplinger says.
In addition, self-care is often far less expensive than conventional regimens of drugs, surgery, or therapy. She points out that if Medicare, Medicaid, and other large-scale health plans sanctioned these treatments, which have been proven effective in medical studies, Americans could save hundreds of billions of dollars each year.
Koepplinger is former director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, where she established programs to aid Native girls and women caught up in sex trafficking and pushed for state legislation to curb this abuse.
“How people cope with adversity looks different in different cultures,” she says. “Many times, it’s important to include methods of healing that are culturally relevant to people of particular backgrounds.”
Her own family traces part of its heritage to the Abenaki people of New England and Quebec, although Koepplinger is not enrolled as a tribal member. She endured trauma regularly for many years in an abusive marriage and literally owes her life to a local domestic abuse project and some great local police officers. “I was so lucky, and I want to give something back,” she says.
Founded Out of Frustration
The Catalyst Initiative’s mission is to introduce more people to innovative therapies by highlighting the social, emotional, mental, behavioral, spiritual, and environmental influences that affect our health. “Catalyst grew out of frustration with the slowness of health care to fully embrace wellness and prevention,” says Gayle Ober, president of the George Family Foundation, which launched the initiative five years ago. Last year, administration of Catalyst shifted to the Minneapolis Foundation.
Other major health care players around Minneapolis-St. Paul have also begun paying closer attention to the particular needs and cultural traditions of underserved communities. Catalyst recently joined a partnership with community mental health organizations to introduce self-care and culturally relevant healing practices at two-year and four-year public colleges around the state. The need for mental health services on college campuses is soaring nationally, so this initiative looks beyond conventional treatments by offering seminars and trainings for students and staff on issues such as trauma and adverse childhood experiences.
Additionally, Catalyst awarded grants to 58 organizations serving people of color, Indigenous communities, veterans, LGBTQ communities, young people and rural Minnesotans. The projects range from a Black church’s after-school program helping kids heal from both historical and personal trauma to programs on three Indian reservations applying Indigenous healing techniques that complement mainstream health care services.
Another grant recipient is NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center, a primary care clinic on the north side of Minneapolis, where 91% of patients are people of color and 30% lack health insurance.
“We’re on the front lines,” says Medical Director Dr. Paul Erickson, noting that people in the neighborhood die 10 years younger on average than those living in wealthy suburbs a few miles away.
The Catalyst funding allowed NorthPoint to train 40 staff members on the latest data and techniques about self-care health approaches such as stress reduction, exercise, diet, and mindfulness.
“What’s great is that these approaches don’t necessarily cost anything,” Erickson says. “You can take a walk, meditate, go out to a park, and it’s free.”
They’re also just the kind of techniques that the Catalyst Initiative wants to make more accessible to everyone, not just those who have experienced trauma, Koepplinger says. “Self-care and culturally relevant healing mean, on one level, knowing when you need to pause, replenish and take care of yourself,” he says. “We want everyone to be able to do this.”
Jay Walljasper writes, speaks, edits, and consults about creating stronger, more vital communities. He is a Senior Fellow at Project of Public Spaces, editor of the Blue Mountain Center Commons, and author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. Walljasper is a YES! contributing editor.