Social media has completely transformed the way we communicate with one another, and that includes how we share information about the injustices that happen in our society. While these platforms have helped us come together and shed light on these experiences, the inescapable images of violence can take an emotional toll on BIPOC. Last year, as my social feeds were flooded with footage of Black people being harmed or killed by police, I was overcome with feelings of anger, hopelessness, and fear.
As soon as I woke up and opened my phone, I’d start to feel drained. I wanted to be informed and felt a responsibility as a Black woman to use my voice in the fight for racial equality. But as the days went on, it became harder to focus in class, I had body aches, and I wasn’t eating enough. At first, I thought it was just stress from the pandemic and the generally overwhelming year that was 2020, but after some time, I realized that it felt like something more.
After meeting with a therapist to express my concerns, I learned that I was experiencing racial trauma.
What Does Racial Trauma Look Like?
Racial trauma is the physical, mental, and spiritual stress caused by racism and other acts of discrimination. As a Black woman, I rarely acknowledged how racism — and the traumatic content I consumed so frequently — negatively affected my mental health.
Jennifer Mullan, PsyD, a psychologist who often treats patients who are suffering from racial trauma, explained that BIPOC people can experience symptoms of trauma daily, though they’ll often invalidate those feelings, instead of acknowledging the cause. “We feel like it’s us and we are making it up,” Dr. Mullan told POPSUGAR. “It’s like, ‘I’m just lazy and I can’t get out of bed,’ or ‘I just can’t concentrate,’ or ‘I don’t know why I feel so anxious about this election.'”
For me, the acts of violence being shared across my social feeds created a lot of anxiety and fear. I started to miss deadlines, I would cry randomly, and I often felt like I was having trouble breathing. Dr. Mullan explained that racial trauma can manifest as increased anxiety, but it may also cause people to feel numb or disconnected, or to experience feelings of intense rage or anger.
How Can Racial Trauma Be Eased?
Aside from signing petitions, having conversations with friends of color, and attending protests, I struggled to find ways to deal with the stress. To help clients experiencing symptoms similar to mine, Dr. Mullan uses techniques like decolonization therapy and other practices that help dismantle and address a person’s daily experiences with racial trauma. This can include working one-on-one and in group settings to unlearn behaviors, develop coping skills, and work toward healing. Dr. Mullan added that anger is one of the most common feelings people experience as a result of racial trauma. She tries to tackle anger through therapy, by first acknowledging it and then suggesting healthier ways to channel it. “It doesn’t mean that we can punch someone in the face, but we can punch pillows, or dance it out,” Dr. Mullan said.
After acknowledging the reality of my racial trauma, I started to engage in healthy coping mechanisms like journaling, dancing, and watching videos centered on Black joy. I watched documentaries and read more about Black history to gain a more hopeful outlook on the movement.
It’s so important to put our mental health first, so if you believe you’re suffering from racial trauma, I encourage you to seek out a therapist, or tap into any number of mental health resources you might have available to you. As a Black woman, representation in therapy was an essential piece of the puzzle in unpacking my racial trauma — so, try to find help that feels tailored to you and your experiences.