#BlackMentalHealthMatters: Coping With Race-based Traumatic Stress

Demonstrator outside the White House on May 30, 2020 (ERIC BARADAT via Getty Images)

By now we’ve probably all heard about the cases of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and the international protests that followed. I think it’s safe to say that most of us are hurt but not surprised. Their stories are only recent additions to America’s long history of violence against African Americans. 

The first viral case of police brutality that I was old enough to actually process was Trayvon Martin in 2012. The news reports paralyzed me. I walked around with this heavy feeling in my chest, I couldn’t control my tears, I had trouble focusing. Everything felt dark for a long time after that day. What’s worse, most of my classmates at my predominantly white school hadn’t even heard the story. Once they had finally gotten word, I remember one of them trying to bring up Martin’s marijuana-related school suspension as if it justified his murder. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that this would be a normal occurrence in my life.

I’ve found that these deaths have shaken me in a similar way and that there is a term for how I’m feeling: race-based traumatic stress (RBTS). It’s our bodies’ physiological and psychological responses to race-related stressors. RBTS is characterized by depression, anger, intrusive thoughts, avoidance behavior, hypervigilance, physical symptoms, and low self esteem. Coined by Dr. Robert T. Carter, he found that racially charged discrimination often generated responses similar to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). RBTS can be experienced directly or indirectly, and can occur on an interpersonal, institutional, or cultural level.

Dr. Robert T. Carter. Teachers College, Columbia University

Racial trauma is still a new concept within the realm of mental health and many professionals aren’t familiarized with it. According to Dr. Colibri Jenkins, our resident psychiatrist at Black With No Chaser, clinicians are taught to look for events such as robberies, sexual assault, or deaths of loved ones as roots of trauma but not necessarily race-related events. The reality is, however, racial trauma is lasting and ongoing. RBTS isn’t a singular event, it’s a series of detrimental experiences that are built up over a lifetime.

Dr. Jenkins explained that it’s common to find young black patients whose response to the “where do you see yourself in five years” question is — not knowing if they’ll even be alive in five years because of police brutality or other historical disparities that repeatedly expose us to dangerous situations. The extra precautions we take like always keeping our ID’s on us, not wearing our hood up in certain places, and not touching things we don’t plan on buying are all examples of hypervigilance. After being the victim of or witnessing racial discrimination so many times, we subconsciously prepare ourselves for when it may happen again.

RBTS is different from PTSD in that the core stressor of trauma is emotional pain, not a threat to one’s life. So, while falling victim to a violently brutal hate crime does not constitute RBTS, witnessing the act on social media certainly does. Seemingly minute microaggressions that we experience in our everyday lives can trigger RBTS so take the time to acknowledge that being bombarded by these heinous videos and ignorant comments all day may have a severe impact on your mental health. 

It’s heartbreaking, infuriating, and traumatizing to see the mistreatment of black people in this country manifest in the form of another lost life. Viral events like these are a glaring reminder that we have to step up in order to see change, but remember to check in with yourself first. It’s okay to embrace all of your emotional responses fully. How is your breathing? Are you holding tension in your body? Did something you saw on social media today particularly upset you? Have you processed it? We often neglect our mental health, especially in the midst of chaos, which can bring about long-term consequences.

If you’ve never had a wellness routine before, now is the time to establish one. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, incorporate social media breaks. It’s simple, but I think we forget how much of our time is consumed by social media especially when there are nonstop updates on Floyd’s case, another police brutality victim, new protests, or government officials making blatantly racist remarks. Logging off every couple of hours can help snap you out of the oppression wormhole we’ve been down lately. Meditation is also a great tool to have when you’re dealing with RBTS. Liberate is a guided meditation app developed specifically for black and indigenous people of color. I recommend listening to the “Healing from Racial Trauma” talk by Dr. Candice Nicole Hargons. My most impactful practice, though, is yoga. If the past few weeks have put you in a mood you’ve been struggling to shake, I highly recommend yoga as it’s been proven to calm the sympathetic nervous system almost immediately. One of my favorite YouTube yogis is Abiola Akanni and she has many beginner friendly videos.

As we continue to execute calls to action, organize protests, exchange resources, and educate the masses on our history, remember: We can’t fight for justice when we’re fighting our emotions. Remember to take care of yourself.

Jasmine is a junior at Tougaloo College studying Economics and Business. She is passionate about holistic wellness and is working towards her yoga teacher certification.

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