The Stress and Trauma of Racism, What You Can Do About It
Experiencing racial injustice or discrimination can mean taking a heavy emotional punch triggering chronic stress, depression, anxiety, and trauma. Increasingly mental health professionals are coming to understand the psychological impact of both individual and systemic racism.
The American Psychological Association has determined trauma originating from acts of racism should be termed “racial trauma”. These acts can be obvious, such as racial profiling or harassment in the workplace, or subtle acts known as “microaggressions” in the form of comments or non-verbal events like refusing to sit next to a person of color.
It’s not necessary to experience racism directly to feel traumatized or have your mental health compromised and suffer. Simply watching news video footage of police brutality against a person of color, witnessing prejudiced acts, or being inundated to the distressing rhetoric of divisive politicians can produce racial trauma.
Examples of how broadly racial discrimination proliferates in U.S. culture are:
- Since the COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. 1,500 reported incidents of racism toward Asians took place in just 1 month.
- African-Americans are 12% of the U.S. population but comprise 33% of the total prison population. This overrepresentation is evidence of racist arrests and policing along with racist sentencing practices in the Courts by the criminal justice system.
Although not everyone who experiences racism and discrimination will develop symptoms of racebased trauma, individuals experience and react to racial trauma in a myriad of different ways. Regardless of the origin or severity of the discriminatory acts, researchers have linked racial trauma to numerous psychological problems, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance use disorders.
Whether racial discrimination has left you feeling anxious, hopeless, exhausted, or traumatized, the following strategies can be helpful in gaining a sense of empowerment, strengthening your resilience, helping you face the future with a bright optimism.
Reach Out & Share Your Pain
Whether you’ve been on the receiving end of a direct racist attack or suffered one or more subtle discriminatory micro-aggressions, it’s normal to be upset, feel fury and rage. It’s also normal to try and repress an incident of racism or try to convince you’re the event has not affected you. However harboring pain within yourself will only amplify your anger and harm your mental and physical health. Openly and honestly sharing your discriminatory event with others is a good first step to healing. Simply talking with someone and feeling heard and understood can release calming hormones, alleviating your nervous system, relieving stress, and easing the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Embrace Your Identity & Ethnicity
People resort to racism to devalue your dignity as a person and lower your self-esteem. You can counter this weaponizing of words and help deflect the pain by taking pride in your culture and history, embracing your heritage and developing a strong sense of your ethnic identity.
Channel Your Anger
Enduring racial bigotry and the injustice of discrimination can understandably make even the most passive person feel rage. Venting fury in an uncontrolled way, for example at taunting and getting in the face of law enforcement officers can make a bad situation even worse. Consider harnessing your anger and channeling it in a constructive way to drive meaningful change. For example you can join an activist group or engage in community activism on voting and work to bring change.
Allow Yourself to Feel Hope & Gratitude
When you’re coping with racial oppression and injustice, it can seem like the whole world is negative. Stay mindful that even in the most distressing moments, it’s usually possible to find reasons for optimism, however minute and seemingly insignificant. Allowing yourself to feel a sense of hope can make a tremendous difference to your mental health. Studies have shown that recognizing and expressing gratitude can better the common symptoms of depression, boost your esteem, and fortify your immune system.
Take Care of Yourself
Coping with the daily stress and pain of racism can be physically and emotionally debilitating. You may feel on edge every moment in a workplace that turns a blind eye to addressing inequality or targeted as you drive or walk in certain neighborhoods. Living with an emotionally heightened state of anxiety and stress can produce serious health problems, compromise your immune and digestive systems, enhance your risk of stroke and heart attack, and result in burnout (mental and physical exhaustion). Since your mind and body are so closely linked, taking care of yourself is an essential part of coping with racism, enduring overwhelming stress, and preparing yourself for the challenges to come.
Rhapsody Counseling is a safe space and helpful resource to all who would like to talk about any trauma they may feel. Call us, we’re here to support and help. For a deeper dive on Trauma, visit our page on Trauma Therapy by clicking here