How to Deal with Racial Trauma

Erica Hayes

December 17, 2020

Director of Coaching Services at Ginger. Master’s degree in Social Work. Passion for mind-body health, nature, powerlifting & cooking.

How to Deal with Racial Trauma

I’ll never forget the day I became truly cognizant of my skin color — the moment my being Black became incredibly real to me. Before that day, I don’t think I understood race and color or its implications, though my parents had certainly talked with me about it the way all Black parents do. And still, it wasn’t real until third grade in a park across the street from my home when I was taunted with the N-word by an older White boy. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Seven year-old me quickly said to myself, “I’m different … a bad-different … a shameful-different.” That space became instantly unsafe socially, physically, and psychologically. I never went back to that park.

Unfortunately, many people in the Black community may be able to relate to my story, and more broadly, to the experience of racial trauma — whether that’s overt racial slurs and threats, distressing medical experiences, workplace discrimination, police harassment or assaults. Racial trauma has been defined as the physical and psychological response to cumulative or stressful experiences of racism. Like other traumas, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) who have experienced racism may develop hyper-vigilance, insomnia, anxiety, depressed mood, guilt, memory impairment, and self-blame.

If you’ve experienced racial trauma, here are some ways to take care of yourself:

Seek support from safe friends or loved ones. Focus on connecting with those who empower, validate, and support you, and move away from those who minimize or dismiss your experience. “Open discussion can help to minimize the tendency to internalize negative racial experiences, which can lead to feelings of anger, sadness, or anxiety. Speaking to others who may have similar reactions can also be normalizing and validating. It is however helpful to be cautious about engaging in repetitive discussions with the same person, which may exacerbate negative reactions,” note Jernigan et al.

Take steps to regulate your nervous system. Chronic stress, such as that which accompanies repeated exposure to racism, can lead to prolonged elevation in the stress hormone cortisol, which can take a toll on the body. Mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation exercises like this one can help.

Journal. Writing down your experiences, feelings, and thoughts can help you move through painful emotions, gain perspective, mobilize to take action, improve mood, and decrease stress. If you want to take public action, help others, or be an advocate, consider sharing your story with others. But keep in mind that opening up wounds can be painful and create additional vulnerability. If you’re wondering about whether to publish or share your writing, talk with a friend, family member, or mental health professional who can help you work through your confusion.

Connect with like-minded individuals or groups. This could mean a church group, a local chapter of Black Lives Matter or Los Unidos, or just friends who can validate your experience and offer comfort.

Practice resistance. To combat feelings of isolation, helplessness, and hopelessness, many people find it helpful to engage in activities that promote change. For example, if it’s safe, consider protesting, creating a sign to display in your window or yard, or boycotting businesses or organizations that contribute to oppression. Signing petitions or supporting organizations and businesses owned by BIPOC can also be a powerful form of activism.

Nourish your body. Racial trauma can lead folks to question whether they should take care of themselves, or whether they matter. One way to remind yourself that you do is by taking excellent care of yourself, by intentionally nourishing your body, ensuring you get enough rest, and engaging in regular movement or exercise. Check out yogi and creative Tiya Caniel, who offers free weekly virtual sessions.

Nourish your spirit. Find ways that are culturally relevant to you to connect with a greater purpose, life force, or belief system. This might include going to church, praying, attending a poetry reading, participating in a meaningful ritual, or engaging in the arts.

Engage with the stories of others. Podcasts by BIPOC can be a great source of inspiration, connection, and healing, such as Melanin and Mental Health’s Between Sessions Podcast or Therapy for Black Girls.

Above all, remember that it’s okay to ask for help.

As a mental health professional, a Black woman, and someone who has experienced racial trauma — I stand with you.