Headline after headline, the story is the same: A raging pandemic that has disproportionately ravaged Black and Brown communities. Another Black life was taken at the hands of the police. Violent terrorist attacks toward minorities and on the steps of the country’s Capital. Racism and the systemic inequities from it dominate headlines these days. Moreso, they are at the forefront of conversations amongst families, coworkers, and neighbors. The costs of these deaths, the devastation, the incited fear — they ripple. Trauma responses such as hypervigilance, loss of appetite, sleep deprivation, increased isolation, and substance use are experienced at this heightened level.
When People of Color experience racism, when they repeatedly witness racism, there is a profound emotional toll. Racism is associated with a host of psychological consequences, including depression, anxiety, and other serious, sometimes debilitating mental conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorders. Yet, the weight of racial trauma and its impact on our overall health and wellness is often misunderstood and misdiagnosed. While those who experience oppression, disenfranchisement, and marginalization are not responsible for their personal or collective pain, it is essential to have coping strategies to manage the day-to-day micro and overt aggressions forced upon our minds, bodies, and souls. Surviving and thriving within a society wrought with racism requires us to be intentional and committed to caring for ourselves.
First, know thyself and your history. Knowing your worth and value is instrumental in maintaining a healthy mind when it is constantly under attack with images that reflect the opposite. It is equally important to know the brilliant contributions that built this nation on the backs of black and brown people. A strong sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy will help you overcome the racial barriers purposely placed on your path so that you are not deterred from realizing your power.
Next, recognize when you need a break and take one. Protecting your mental state during harrowing times when your livelihood feels threatened by external events is critical to your wellbeing. Too often, we unconsciously carry the weight of racism. If not tended to, this weight can show up as flight, fight, or freeze trauma responses, defense mechanisms used to protect the mind and body. Trying to “go hard” or “sleep when we die’’ often comes with a painful price. Instead, take time to unplug from electronics, get out into nature, and incorporate mindfulness exercises like deep breathing and body awareness. These activities will help you establish a stronger mind-body connection and address issues related to stress, anxiety, and depression. Empirical evidence supporting mindfulness shows decreased mental rumination, improved memory and cognition, increased immune functioning, less emotional reactivity, and improved relationships, all of which are required to show up as our best Black and Brown selves.
The next step is all about getting back to the basics: good sleep, nutrition, and activity. It is a scientific fact that our minds and bodies perform at optimal levels when combined with proper rest, nourishment, and movement. For example, sleep promotes physical health and recovery with direct effects on almost all systems of the body. Sleep is vital for cognitive functioning, attention, and memory. Additionally, sleep plays an integral role in emotional health. We must be vigilant about what we eat when we sleep, and how we move our bodies so that we are armed with the strength and resolve to persevere despite the obstacles we face.
The last step is all about self-love: learning to ask for help when needed. It is unwise to go it alone, and while Maslow’s Hierarchy places Belongingness and Love as needs on the third level of his five-tier model, some argue that it is a primary need like food and shelter. Connecting with your community and asking for help is one of the most powerful things that we can do. There is a synergistic strength in being united with those that love and care about our well-being. Sometimes, sharing our deepest and sometimes darkest thoughts and experiences often brings about shame and humiliation. Consequently, these feelings can dominate our psyche, taking an emotional toll on our lives impairing our ability to function and live life fully. Fortunately, there are a number of thought leaders and mental health professionals who have committed themselves to revolutionize and normalize therapy for communities of color, creating an avenue and outlet for our emotional needs.
These four steps are a blueprint for managing the weight of racial stress and trauma. Expanding your self-knowledge, learning to take mindful breaks, caring for your mind and body, along asking for help when you need it will empower you to design a healthy, happy, and resilient life.