Racial trauma or race-based traumatic stress (RBTS) is characterized by chronic exposure to physical and emotional distress associated with experiencing or witnessing racism or discrimination.1 RBTS is often comparable to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety-related disorders.2 It is often chronic and pervasive, and may go undiagnosed.
What Is Racial Trauma?
Racial trauma is often acquired via repeated exposure to discriminatory and pejorative situations that are displayed in the media, and it can be experienced individually or within communities. It is not always consciously processed by the individual and the trauma can manifest in many diverse ways.1 Racial trauma is not recognized as a distinctive diagnosis by the ICD-10 or DSM-5, and is commonly comorbid with other types of trauma and psychopathology.
Who Is Most Affected By Racial Trauma?
Black, Indigenous, (and) People of Color (BIPOC) individuals are most affected by racial trauma as a result of racial biases integrated into societal norms, political structures, and social constructs. Systemic issues due to economic, educational, vocational disparities, among others have resulted in increased exposure to racial and discriminatory practices.1
“Everyone is impacted by racial trauma, though the way people are impacted varies. There are the everyday microaggressions and stressors related to being a racial being who doesn’t present or pass as white. The United States was founded on a racial hierarchy that privileged the white, cis, heterosexual, male, Christian, wealthy body and discriminated against the Black or Indigenous body and that continues in some way in present day.” – Dr. Nathalie Edmond, Psy.D.
Symptoms of Racial Trauma
Symptoms of racial trauma can include psychological, somatic, and physical distress.
Additionally, those exposed to racial trauma are more predisposed to diabetes, cardiovascular issues, mental health disorders, and an increased risk for suicide.1
Symptoms of racial trauma include:
- Anxiety and fear
- Guilt or shame
- Disassociation, disconnectedness
- Social isolation
- Anger and irritability, feeling tense or “on edge”
- Denial, shock, and disbelief
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sadness and hopelessness
- Rumination and perseveration
- Difficulty trusting others
- Feeling stigmatized or ostracized
- Sleep difficulties
- Headaches, chest pains, nausea
- Racing heart, elevated body temperature, heavy breathing, shaking
Causes of Racial Trauma
A constant barrage of vicarious, individual, and community racial-based trauma can impact an individual’s functioning. Specifically, vicarious trauma, often called secondary trauma, is experienced by witnessing traumatic situations indirectly.2 For example, media exposure–like witnessing George Floyd’s death, Rodney King’s beating, and the trial for Breonna Taylor– can be a direct cause of such trauma.
Racial trauma can also result due to an individual’s personal experiences, such as being a victim of racial profiling or microaggressions on the job or within other vocational settings. In the community, this may include dealing with systemic racism and/or a lack of resources within traditionally marginalized communities.
When discussing RBTS, it is necessary to recognize its connection to intergenerational trauma, or the profound long-lasting impression of historical traumatic events on future generations.3 Examples of this include the Trail of Tears; the redlining of African Americans neighborhoods from financial institutions; and the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor.
Impacts of Racial Trauma
A number of influential mental and medical health associations–including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association, among others–have labeled racism as a significant threat to public health that calls for proactive measures to mitigate. Evidence-based research highlights the physical longer-term effects of individuals who have experienced RBTS.
It has been proven that the impact of racial trauma specifically on African Americans is connected to notable health concerns. Research shows that these populations are more likely to experience poor diet and sleep patterns; an increase in obesity and mortality rates; and an increase in stress related illnesses, such as cardiovascular illness.4
“Research is showing that microaggressions have an impact on our nervous system and create a stress or trauma response similar to other types of trauma. There are also more overt acts of racial trauma in the form of race based violence and also the vicarious trauma of seeing others who look like you be murdered or assaulted, as well as the experience of not feeling respected a full human being.” – Dr. Nathalie Edmond
RBTS symptoms derive from one’s fear that traumatic experiences will occur again. For instance, a BIPOC person may fear for their overall safety in certain situations. This can include distress over how they will be treated and the possibility of such situations reoccurring in the future. Living in fear can increase the production of cortical, which can cause an array of physical and mental problems; a person may experience cognitive impairments, anxiety, and depression. RBTS also shares similar symptoms with PTSD, such as insomnia, physical pains (headache, muscle aches, chest pains), and ruminating thoughts of the trauma event.5
When to Seek Professional Help
A BIPOC individual may be able to conduct a self-assessment to determine if they are suffering from racial trauma. However, an assessment from a certified mental health practitioner is necessary for a true prognosis.1
You should seek professional help if you experience negative impacts of RBTS such as:
- A decrease in job/school performance
- A lack of motivation to complete daily tasks
- A change in your interaction with others
- A decrease in self-esteem
- A neglect of routine self-care practices
- A Disengagement from favorable activities
- An increased desire to harm yourself or others
- An Increase in recreational substance use and/or reckless behavior
If you are coping with racial trauma, there are a few key factors to consider when finding a therapist to adequately assist you. First, you may want to locate a therapist that is culturally sensitive, and is willing to tailor the treatment to your needs. This is important, as it helps foster the development of a therapeutic alliance and relationship with someone who you can trust. Regardless of which therapeutic approach is used, your symptoms are most likely to improve when you have confidence in your therapist.
While finding a therapist, you may want to consider the age, gender, race/ethnicity, and religious background of the professional. You want to feel comfortable with whomever you choose to work with. You can start your search by asking your insurance provider for a list of in-network therapists, or consult your doctor and loved ones for recommendations. Furthermore, an online search via a directory can help you filter for culturally sensitive therapists.
Treatments for Racial Trauma
Treatment for RBTS typically includes different forms of therapy that help a person recognize their trauma, and learn healthy methods of coping and healing from the trauma.
Some therapeutic options for the treatment of RBTS include:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is a commonly used approach that teaches a person how to change their negative thought patterns and emotional responses attached to trauma; it is typically utilized in the treatment of PTSD and anxiety disorders.6 CBT encourages one to challenge unhealthy behavioral and emotional patterns, and learn healthy ways to cope with them. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a specialized CBT intervention that teaches individuals how to accept difficulties in life and commit to altering their behavioral patterns. ACT focuses on one accepting themselves and their experiences by validating that their responses to trauma are appropriate.7
Trauma Informed Care (TIC)
Trauma Informed Care (TIC) encourages one to recognize that they have experienced traumatic events and identify themselves as a survivor, rather than a victim. This approach makes a person ask themselves what has happened to them, instead of what is wrong with them. The main principles of TIC include safety, choice, collaboration, trustworthiness, and empowerment. These provide guidance when trying to understand the effect of trauma, one’s mechanisms of recovery, and the symptomatology of trauma with the intention of lessening opportunities for re-traumatization.8
Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)
TF-CBT is a mental health practice often used for children who have experienced trauma, as well as their parents and/or caregivers. However, it can also be used for adults. This approach combines CBT with trauma sensitive interventions for those displaying symptoms of PTSD. In treatment, individuals learn how to effectively express, label, and understand their emotions.9
Liberation Psychology & Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)
Liberation Psychology is most commonly utilized within the Latinx culture. It works by addressing existing oppressive political and social structures within marginalized communities. Liberation Psychology combined with TF-CBT assists individuals as they “locate their experiences within the historical context of oppression and marginalization”.10 This in turn allows a person to “grant” themselves the permission to experience their symptoms caused by trauma without personal judgment.10
Racial trauma is difficult to overcome, but there are ways to cope. Being vulnerable and asking for help can be uncomfortable, but suffering in silence can be tormenting. You are not alone and there are many means of finding support. Online directories can connect you with qualified mental health professionals who are culturally sensitive and willing to assist you as you manage the impact of your trauma. Various therapeutic approaches can be used to treat your symptoms. Moreover, finding a therapist who understands your culture and is sensitive to the racially traumatic situations you have encountered is important.
For Further Reading
- Asians Do Therapy
- The Asian Mental Health Collective
- South Asian Therapist Directory
- Black Emotional Mental Health Collective
- Therapy for Black Girls
- Black Men Heal
- Black Mental Health Alliance
- Therapy for Latinx
- National Latino Behavioral Health Association
- Bilingual Mental Health Resources for Latinx communities
- The Center for Native American Youth
- Native & Indigenous Mental Health Resources– Affirming Pathways- For Native and Indigenous People
- Modern Health
- Mental Health America
- National Alliance on Mental Health