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We’ve Experienced Racial Pain, Here Are Ways to Heal From It

You've heard that saying: ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ Psychologists call that post-traumatic growth. Building 5 simple habits can help us reclaim health and joy.

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Black women, illustration, collage, racism, voting, exercising, peace
Jonell Joshua
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The white woman who exclaims, “I love your hair! Can I touch it?” as she reaches out to do so before you can say no. The colleague who diminishes your recent promotion by saying, With all this Black Lives Matter stuff, it makes sense that they’d give it to you.” The security guard who stalks you through the store so hard that you ask if you can help him?

 If these slights seem familiar to you, and if the racial justice reckoning that intensified in 2020 has left you feeling like, “Woo child, this is a lot!,” you might be experiencing racial trauma. And racial trauma is real.

 Black people have experienced trauma since we were first captured and brought to this country 400-plus years ago — from the historic trauma of the horrific Middle Passage to the Americas and generations of enslavement, to the indignities and outrages that led us to organize freedom rides, boycotts and protests today. Racial trauma also includes Karen’s microaggressions on the job and Amy’s while you’re bird-watching in the park, as well as repeatedly reliving the death and destruction of Black bodies on social media news feeds. Although we “handle it” and try to go about our daily lives, the psychological toll that we experience can affect us physically, contributing to health problems that include obesity, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and shortened life expectancy. We experience all of this disproportionately compared with white people.

 Psychologist Simone Leavell-Bruce, a therapist at Behavioral Wellness Clinic in Tolland, Connecticut, defines racial trauma as “cumulative experiences of racism — lifelong experiences that can lead to symptoms of PTSD.” Unlike other traumas that are distinct events, such as war, a scary car accident or an assault, racial trauma is unique because it is a result of prolonged exposure. “It's very different from other types of trauma where there is often an ending and people can heal because it's behind them,” Leavell-Bruce says. “With race-based trauma, that's just not the case.”  

The five ways to discern post-traumatic growth include positive responses in these areas: appreciation of life, relationships with others, new possibilities in life, personal strength and spiritual change or growth.

Racial trauma can be difficult to prove or diagnose, especially if people of color are hesitant or unwilling to share their experiences of racism with white doctors or therapists. “Oftentimes racial trauma is denied by white people who want to say that we are in a post-racial society or that there are things like ‘black privilege,’” says Leavell-Bruce, who notes that we begin to understand racial differences as early as three years old. Recognizing the impact of a certain experience can be validating for the person living it, she says. And that validation can contribute to the person’s recovery. Leavell-Bruce and other mental health professionals suggest that a growing body of research could lead developers to include racial trauma in the next iteration of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the guide used by mental health professionals to diagnose and classify mental health disorders.

Without such a diagnosis, Leavell-Bruce warns, clinicians will look for what she calls an index trauma, or a specific event. “That can be limiting because oftentimes we can't think of just one event; it's often many, many events.”

 Symptoms of racial trauma are similar to PTSD. They include irritability, fatigue, low self-esteem, trouble concentrating, hyper-alertness, heightened anxiety, depression, hopelessness, sleep problems and extreme stress. Racial trauma affects both individuals and the broader community; it is pervasive and it can be transmitted from one generation to the next. In fact, recent research found that participants who experienced any discrimination were significantly more likely to screen positive for PTSD. 

Rebuilding Happiness Through Resilience

But there is hope! As with other types of trauma, when you’re able to work through race-based trauma, you may emerge feeling stronger, more insightful and more self-aware. This experience is called post-traumatic growth or PTG, a theory developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the mid-1990s. PTG happens when you experience positive growth after the psychological struggle that comes from adversity. PTG might mean that on the other side of trauma, a sister has a better understanding of herself or her world or how to relate to others or how she wants to live her life. 

The five ways to discern PTG include positive responses in these areas: appreciation of life, relationships with others, new possibilities in life, personal strength and spiritual change or growth. PTG may also increase your empathy for others who may have had similar experiences and allow you to connect on an even deeper level.

 If you have any trauma symptoms, know that they are valid, and that racial trauma is not something you can just get over. Here are some steps you can take to support to your work toward PTG:  

  • Express yourself. Reframe your story by writing, drawing, using photography, curating a playlist or exploring music and lyrics to make meaning of your experience. Engaging the arts helps you to process experiences even if you don’t have words to describe them yet. Seek and create communities that give you a sense of camaraderie and provide a space for you to tell your story and bear witness to others’ stories.
  • Practice self-care. Consider ways to create space and peace for yourself. Healthy boundaries allow you to determine what’s off limits for you to do and participate in (like your company’s new diversity meetings). Devoting time each day to meditate and practice deep breathing can help you connect with your body and regulate your emotions.
  • Eat well, sleep well and exercise. Eat whole foods that give you energy and support your body. This isn’t about being on a diet but about maintaining your engine with quality fuel. Shut down your devices at least an hour before bedtime to give you time to decompress each night. Movement — whatever that looks like for you — is good for your body and your mind. You can turn up a favorite playlist and have your own private dance party in your home.
  • Take action. Whether it’s protesting and marching, registering folks to vote, donating to an organization that reflects your values, promoting events on social media or calling your lawmakers and demanding that they support policies that support people of color, getting involved gives you a sense of agency, combats feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, provides a release for your anger and helps to change systems that perpetuate racism in our society.
  • Stay informed. Read, listen to podcasts and pay attention to news sources you trust. But be mindful that too much negative news can amplify worries, and that you can stay aware without being alarmed. Even deciding not to watch videos of Black folks being murdered by police is asserting your agency to avoid undue anxiety or stress. (Watching horrific videos is not a testament to who you are or how much you care).
  • Seek professional help. If symptoms persist and interfere with your life at home or at work, seek support from a mental health professional who can help you work through your trauma with empathy and compassion. Because you deserve to claim peace and joy.