This Is How Racial Trauma Is Affecting the Mental Health of Black People

Published on: 02 Jul 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD
racial trauma in the media impact on mental health

Black people have witnessed the social and racial injustices inflicted on our communities due to the color of our skin. We have repeatedly watched our brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers be murdered at the hands of the police.

With the most recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all the other souls taken too soon, our community and the world have seemingly reached a breaking point. These murders have brought up trauma that we’ve learned to mask, trauma that we didn’t know we were carrying inside of us, trauma that has left us experiencing a plethora of feelings — from numbness to rage. As a collective, what we as Black people have been and are currently experiencing can be summed up in two words: racial trauma.

What Is Racial Trauma?

According to the American Psychological Association, racial trauma is a form of race-based stress that affects Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), their reactions to dangerous events, and real or perceived experiences of racial discrimination. These experiences can be threats of harm, humiliating events, and witnessing acts of racial discrimination to non-white people.

“For many people who are Black, we react strongly to seeing events like the recent police killings, people being arrested, or people who may remind us of our family members or our close friends being assaulted or abused. Those types of images —whether or not we know that person — tend to bring on things that look like anxiety, depression, or sometimes rage,” Reshawana Chapple, PhD, LCSW explained. Racial trauma can also present itself as grief, helplessness, fear, depression, anxiety, and numbness, according to Chapple.

“The way in which we deal with racial trauma looks exactly like somebody dealing with PTSD. It elicits the same physical, mental, and emotional reactions to our body,” she explained. You tend to experience a range of emotions, from being desensitized to enraged, because your body is unable to understand how to deal with what you’re seeing or feeling. These experiences elicit the fight-or-flight survival mechanism, and ultimately, “it puts you in a place in which you can’t feel safe,” Chapple said.

If you’ve ever had days where you were hypersensitive, sad, angry, or any other emotion on the spectrum, you more than likely were experiencing the effects of racial trauma. We often write these emotions off as simply “having a bad day” or being “a negative, pessimistic person” but in fact, it’s often much deeper than that.

“It’s difficult to see…It happens to Black people and people of color all the time — over and over again. It may be something very slight like a microaggression, it may be something that someone said to us, or it may be the fact that they’re dismissing something that’s happening (for example, having to explain protests and Black Lives Matter to white people),” Chapple said. This can result in near-constant exhaustion, which is why it’s imperative you implement self-care strategies on a daily basis — to take care of both your mental and physical health.

How to Manage and Cope With Racial Trauma

If you’re experiencing racial trauma, Chapple said, “Try to limit your consumption of news or social media. Basically, watching these images and sharing them can be traumatizing to you or others because you can’t unsee them.” While it’s important to stay updated on what’s happening in the U.S. and around the world, Chapple recommends only tuning in to get the necessary information, and as soon as you begin to feel overwhelmed — shut it off.

“The next thing I tell people to do, especially if it’s starting to cause them to become very overwhelmed or distracted is to think about the other things that distract them,” she said. For example, if you get non stop notifications on your phone and computer, try turning them off so that you don’t feel like you’re forever reacting. This will also help limit your intake of negative information and lets you control how and when you do come across this information, Chapple said.

In addition to limiting your consumption of the news and social media, Chapple said to feel your feelings, whatever they may be. She explained that some people may feel guilty about the emotions they’re experiencing because they think others may be going through worse. She emphasized that emotions are not mutually exclusive. You have permission to experience your feelings even if others may be in worse positions.

She also suggests speaking with someone you trust, someone who will listen and allow you to process your feelings without gaslighting you. Be sure to work through your feelings, even if they’re negative and they feel uncomfortable. “Allow yourself to feel whatever it is you feel and then decide what to do with it. Instead, many of us say simply, “I can’t have that feeling.” According to Chappel, all this strategy accomplishes is to “keep the feeling inside of you, it doesn’t make it go away, so feel the feelings,” Chapple said.

Another way to cope with racial trauma is to set boundaries with people and things that are triggering you. It’s also important to give yourself grace and to have self-compassion. If you need a break, take it. Even if you think you’re accustomed to witnessing acts of violence towards Black people, many of us aren’t aware of when we’re experiencing racial trauma, Chapple explained. You may think, “I’ve seen this stuff all the time, I’m numb to this, or this doesn’t affect me, but then you might get a headache later, you might feel nauseous. You have what’s called psychosomatic symptoms from all of this [trauma] and it’s eliciting and coming up in various, different ways. It’s really affecting us,” she said.

To help manage the range of emotions you may be feeling, Chapple encourages starting a self-care routine which can include activities like playing games, meditating, doing yoga, or watching TV. “Just make sure that you give yourself some sort of time that belongs only to you, so that way you can recharge,” she said.

When to Seek Professional Mental Help

These strategies can help you manage and process your emotions, but if you find that you aren’t feeling better and you’re masking what you’re feeling, you may consider seeking help from a professional, according to Chapple.

In the Black community, seeking mental health support hasn’t traditionally been seen as positive, but “When you get to a point where you can no longer manage your day-to-day activity, when you are becoming forgetful, when you are becoming snappy or numb, and you simply aren’t enjoying the things that you normally would enjoy, it’s definitely time to seek out reinforcements,” she said.

If you’ve decided to pursue therapy, congratulations, that’s a major first step! Finding a therapist that suits your needs and will make you feel comfortable to open up — it also may take some trial and error. To help ease the process, we recommend asking potential therapists questions pertaining to their training and cultural competency in order to find the best match.

Remember, it’s OK to take time for yourself. Do whatever it is you need to do to maintain your peace of mind and recharge. “Many of us are juggling several different things and we’re trying to maintain while we’re continuing to see different things that are scary or disappointing to us,” Chapple said. “I implore people to, at least once a day, to do a self-check and just stop and ask yourself ‘How am I feeling? How am I doing?’”

Racial trauma is very real and not something you can brush aside. Be sure to take time to nurture yourself and loved ones both now and in the future.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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