Managing your distress in the aftermath of racial trauma and stress

4 mins read

In the past few decades, many prominent psychologists of color have studied the effects of racial trauma, and how it leads to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and stress. It has also been linked to posttraumatic stress disorder, substance use disorders, and other serious psychological conditions. Experiences of racism against people of color build on each other and over time, can chip away at one’s emotional, physical, and spiritual resources.

Here are some signs that may indicate a person is experiencing racial trauma:

  • Avoiding situations that are related to racism or reminders of past racist experiences
  • Distrusting others due to multiple losses or letdowns
  • Feeling triggered by reminders of a racist experience, which can lead to strong emotional or physical responses (e.g., crying or rapid heartbeat)
  • Experiencing difficulty controlling emotional responses
  • Being hypervigilant, overly alert, or paranoid about potential dangers or negative experiences because of one’s race

Here are some tips for how to cope

Share your pain

Feeling like you can’t cope, can’t focus, or want to cry—these are all normal and valid responses to racial trauma. Holding in anger or painful feelings negatively affects our emotional well-being. Sharing difficult feelings with others—friends, family members, clergy, or mental health professionals—can help.

Acknowledging and expressing our feelings helps us understand why we feel overwhelmed and can strengthen our ability to channel those emotions. Verbalizing such feelings can make sadness, anger, and pain feel less intense. Conversely, suppressing outrage and anguish can lead to adverse mental and physical health consequences over time.

Acknowledge your anger

Anger and outrage are appropriate responses to injustice. The way we process and channel our pain can help protect us from long-term mental health effects and make us better citizens and advocates. While anger can sometimes turn volatile, it can also be useful. When channeled, anger and pain can spur meaningful action and effect change.

Exploring your anger and pain can help you identify and confront problems—through conversation, protest, or advocacy. Anger also has an alerting function: It tells others that it is important to listen to our words and pay attention to our actions.

Protect your mental health

Just as we take steps to prevent physical illness, there are things we can do to protect our mental health.

  • Limit your media intake. News coverage and video of people being assaulted, harassed, or even killed because of racism can cause trauma and trigger negative reactions. Take breaks from the news and social media when you can.
  • Tap into social support and connection. Lean on friends and family and participate in culturally affirming activities. Connect with your faith community, neighbors, or other support networks.
  • Take care of yourself. Eat healthy food, get enough sleep, and move your body. Those basic principles will give you strength to get through another day.
  • Let yourself feel hope. While it can be difficult to tap into hope at such times, it’s important to acknowledge small signs of change and believe that those small changes will lead to something better.
  • Seek therapy. Racial trauma can lead to serious mental health consequences such as depression, anxiety, or even PTSD-like symptoms. If you are struggling, talk to a racial trauma-informed therapist about what you are going through. They can help you work through your feelings and strategize ways to cope.

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