Racial Trauma: The Effects on Mental Health

Published on: 24 Jan 2023
Clinically Reviewed by Bisma Anwar, LMHC
Stressed black man with dreadlocks talking to therapist

Traumatic stress is a form of stress triggered by exposure to distressing and emotionally painful experiences. Racial injustices and discrimination can cause a form of race-based traumatic stress (RBTS) known as racial trauma. This stress can potentially result in symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The topic of racial trauma is one that’s far too often ignored or downplayed. The fact is, racial inequity is still prevalent today as it’s been in the past, and ignoring or denying there’s a problem isn’t going to make it go away. 

Keep reading to learn more about racialized trauma, including how a systemic structure is worsening its existence, the symptoms and triggers, and most importantly, how we can cope and heal from this tragic reality through online therapy.

What Is Racial Trauma?

Experiencing and dealing with racism can have a significant impact on someone’s health and well-being. Research emphatically tells us that race-related stress increases the risk of depression and anxiety disorders. Studies also show it’s associated with physical health issues. Racialized trauma describes the psychological injuries caused by racial discrimination. 

What, exactly, is racialized trauma? It’s a form of racial stress caused by experiences with racial discrimination. It can result from enduring verbal and physical attacks, threats of harm, and witnessing racial injustices. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are at increased risk of experiencing micro and macroaggressions related to their race. 

“Racial trauma is the physical and emotional symptoms associated with experiencing racism regularly.”

Talkspace therapist Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW

Systemic vs. individual racial trauma

Macroaggressions refer to undisguised or large-scale racist acts towards people of another race. Racist policies and misinformation are examples of macroaggressions. This is known as system racism and can lead to race based trauma that impacts everyone in a racial group. 

Racism impacts people in many ways. Microaggressions are painful actions, questions, and comments directed at an individual. It’s a subtle form of racism that’s frequently a part of everyday life for many. While microaggressions aren’t always intentional, they can still cause significant harm and contribute to racial oppression. 

Both systemic and individual racism can be a source of extreme traumatic stress. While personal experiences can cause direct trauma, systemic racism restricts access to opportunities. For example, due to past policies like redlining and segregation, BIPOC people are significantly less likely to own their own home and are disproportionately denied mortgage loans.

Racial trauma triggers

Racial trauma can be experienced by anyone who’s a part of a racial or ethnic group that’s been marginalized or stigmatized for their racial identity. It can be triggered by several events, including:

  • Overt racism: Overt racism describes intentional or blatant racist behaviors. It often occurs individually and can include racial slurs, threats, and other forms of racial abuse.
  • Covert racism: Covert racism describes more subtle forms of racial harassment. It can include policies intended to deny minorities access to benefits or privileges and involve racist behaviors that perpetrators can plausibly deny.
  • Vicarious racism: Secondhand exposure to racism can also be a source of trauma. It can be triggered by events witnessed directly or by exposure to racism in the media. In recent years, we’ve seen horrific footage of police brutality. Although this has raised awareness of Black Lives Matter, it can also create significant trauma for anyone watching.   
  • Racial gaslighting: It’s not unusual for racism to be discredited, downplayed, or flat-out denied. When people are made to doubt their own experiences with racism, it’s known as gaslighting and can cause significant psychological distress. 

Symptoms of Racial Trauma

Racialized trauma can cause both psychological and physical symptoms. While they can vary from person to person, common signs of racial trauma can include:

  • Disassociation
  • Low self-esteem
  • Increased sensitivity 
  • Anxiety 
  • Depression 
  • Hypervigilance 
  • Avoidance
  • Reliving distressing events 
  • Chronic stress
  • Digestive issues 
  • Aches and pains 
  • Insomnia 
  • Headaches
  • Respiratory issues 

“Racial trauma is similar to PTSD and can cause the individual to be on edge, irritable, nervous, angry, and sometimes physically ill.”

Talkspace therapist Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW 

These symptoms can have a devastating effect, so it’s critical to find ways to manage stress related to experiencing racism. Avoid ineffective coping mechanisms, like disengaging and avoidance, and instead, focus on adaptive strategies that will give you strength.

How to Cope with Racialized Trauma

Coping with racial trauma begins by acknowledging that it exists. If you or a loved one has experienced it, you’ll likely benefit from support and guidance to overcome the effects it might have on your life, sense of self, and physical or mental well-being. Below, we’ve outlined how to deal with trauma from racial discrimination.

Share your experiences with others

Studies show that keeping silent about racism can result in severe stress. Don’t be afraid to speak up and discuss your experiences with racism with trusted friends and family members. Not only can these kinds of discussions be validating, but they can also help you begin to process your feelings. 

Prioritize self-care

Any form of trauma can leave you feeling physically and emotionally drained. Self-care can help you recover and heal. Set aside time for activities you enjoy, whether it’s reading a book, getting outdoors, or listening to a podcast.

If you recognize that you’re not doing well, it’s okay to give yourself a break. Rest and nourishment are essential to your health and well-being and can help you keep your stress levels in check. 

Identify your triggers

Try to become more aware of people, situations, and environments that are triggers for racial trauma. Work to develop coping mechanisms for the times you’re faced with racism in the future. If you know that your stress levels are particularly high, it might be better to try avoiding known triggers (people or situations that will force you to confront racism) until you’re feeling strong and able to respond without adding to your anxiety. 

While staying informed is good, watching or reading the news is a known trigger for racial trauma. Make a point of engaging with light or uplifting media, watching your favorite comedies, spending time with good friends and family, or enjoying your favorite activity or sport if you need a break.

Recite positive affirmations

Low self-esteem is a common symptom of racial trauma. Affirmations can be a way to rebuild your confidence. At the start of each day, look in the mirror and recite an affirmation that will remind you of your strength and worth. 

Get involved

Activism against racial injustice can be incredibly empowering. Find ways to get involved, such as volunteering with local organizations or connecting with online groups. Advocacy and volunteering are great ways to make a difference and meet like-minded people. 

Becoming active can be a powerful way to acknowledge racism without contributing more to your stress. It’s a way to reinforce your agency and do something to tackle the challenges that you’ve been witnessing or dealing with.

Learn more about racialized trauma

It’s okay to ask questions like what is racial trauma? As you become more familiar with this form of traumatic stress, you’ll find more effective ways to cope. Researching RBTS can also help you better understand the symptoms that you’ve been experiencing. 

Seek therapy

If RBTS negatively impacts your day-to-day life, you may want to work with a mental health professional. The right therapist can help you begin to process and heal from the trauma you’ve experienced. To avoid negative experiences, it’s best to work with a therapist who’s skilled and has experience with racial trauma. 

“Therapy is a great way to understand your triggers and learn positive coping skills. You can learn effective ways to practice self-care and remove yourself from the stress.”

Talkspace therapist Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW 

Heal from Trauma with Talkspace 

It isn’t always easy to find qualified mental health professionals to treat racial trauma. Talkspace can help you connect with a therapist who can provide you with the support you’re seeking. 

With the help of your therapist, you’ll be able to protect yourself against trauma stressors and begin to heal from the pain you’ve endured after experiencing racial trauma. 


1. Gee G, Spencer M, Chen J, Yip T, Takeuchi D. The association between self-reported racial discrimination and 12-month DSM-IV mental disorders among Asian Americans nationwide. Social Science & Medicine. 2007;64(10):1984-1996. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2007.02.013. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17374553/. Accessed September 25, 2022.

2. Stopforth S, Kapadia D, Nazroo J, Bécares L. The enduring effects of racism on health: Understanding direct and indirect effects over time. SSM Popul Health. 2022;19:101217. doi:10.1016/j.ssmph.2022.101217. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36091297/. Accessed September 25, 2022.

3. Karlsen S, Nazroo J. Relation Between Racial Discrimination, Social Class, and Health Among Ethnic Minority Groups. Am J Public Health. 2002;92(4):624-631. doi:10.2105/ajph.92.4.624. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11919063/. Accessed September 25, 2022.

4. US homeownership rates by race. USAFacts. https://usafacts.org/articles/homeownership-rates-by-race/. Published 2020. Accessed September 25, 2022.  

5. Lu D, Palmer J, Rosenberg L et al. Perceived racism in relation to telomere length among African American women in the Black Women’s Health Study. Ann Epidemiol. 2019;36:33-39. doi:10.1016/j.annepidem.2019.06.003. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1047279719300894?via%3Dihub. Accessed September 25, 2022.

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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