Racial Trauma and Your Health - GoodRx

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HomeHealth TopicMental Health

Racial Trauma and Your Health

Written by Sarah Gupta, MD
February 24, 2021

Key takeaways:

  • Racial discrimination is associated with many mental health conditions in Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).

  • Over 60% of Black Americans experience racial discrimination during their lifetime, and findings suggest that their health is most strongly affected by these experiences compared to other groups.

  • COVID-19 is a fresh source for racial trauma for many BIPOC in America.

Trauma is an emotional and physical response to an intense, scary, or upsetting life experience. Trauma can be caused by an isolated event, or can be the result of many experiences over the years — sometimes even small ones. 

Many people think of a “traumatic experience” as a major event, like an accident, natural disaster, illness, or assault. But decades of research show that racism and discrimination can also be a source of trauma. And this racial trauma can have a significant impact on mental and physical health.

Though any person can experience racial trauma, this article is primarily written for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), to emphasize their lived experience and to provide targeted information and resources. Read on to learn more about racism and mental health, racial trauma, and where to find support — which may be even more important than ever during the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

Young Black man in a teal blue sweatshirt sitting in front of a couch on the floor with a worried and sad expression.
RichVintage/E+ via Getty Images
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What is racial trauma?

Racial trauma is a term used to describe the physical and mental effects that can be caused by experiencing and witnessing racism and discrimination. It’s also sometimes called race-based traumatic stress (RBTS).  

Not everyone who experiences racism or discrimination will have trauma. Some people may even grow stronger as the result of their life experiences. But for many people, race-based encounters can lead to racial trauma — which can have a major impact on relationships, career, and day-to-day life. 

Symptoms of racial trauma include:

  • Recurring, uncontrollable (intrusive) thoughts and images

  • Feeling “on edge” (hypervigilance)

  • Avoiding people, places, or activities 

  • Concentration and memory problems

  • Guilt and shame

  • Hopelessness

  • Irritability

  • Anxiety

  • Low mood

  • Suicidal thoughts 

  • Headaches

  • Problems sleeping (insomnia)

  • Body aches

Racial trauma can affect people of all ages. Though it is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it is a separate condition. And even though the American Psychiatric Association does not officially classify it as a mental health disorder, many health professionals now recognize, diagnose, and treat racial trauma. 

What causes racial trauma?

Any race-related encounter can lead to racial trauma, especially if it is emotionally painful, sudden, and uncontrollable. In the United States, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are especially vulnerable to racial trauma because of centuries of systemic racism, slavery, and genocide. 

Many different types of experiences can contribute to racial trauma:

  • Your own personal experiences, including subtle statements or actions (called microaggressions

  • Witnessing people close to you experiencing racism or discrimination

  • Witnessing people you don’t know experiencing racism or discrimination

  • Witnessing racial violence

  • Witnessing racial disparities, like those worsened by COVID-19

  • Being exposed to racism through the news and social media

  • Being exposed to institutional racism

  • Having a multigenerational history of racial trauma in your family 

For many people, racial trauma isn’t the result of one single experience or incident. How you experience race and culture depends on many factors — including what you know about your family, community, and racial history. Childhood trauma or a family history of trauma can also make you more vulnerable to experience racial trauma later in your life.

Current events — especially large-scale tragedies or emergencies — can also create situations that fuel racial trauma. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Indigenous, Black, and Latinx communities have experienced especially high rates of hospitalization, unemployment, and deaths compared to other racial groups. Asian Americans, who have been hit hard by unemployment during the pandemic, have also frequently been scapegoated as the (incorrect) source of COVID-19 in the United States. 

Can racial trauma have lasting effects?

Yes. Racial trauma can have lasting effects for you as an individual, for your family and community, and for future generations. On an individual level, the impact of racial trauma can add up (and worsen) over the years. This is especially likely if the trauma goes untreated — which can happen if medical racism and other healthcare challenges get in the way of seeking care. 

In addition, racial trauma can make you more likely to develop another health condition. For example, racial trauma can put you at risk for:

Many BIPOC are also part of communities that have experienced generations of trauma, sometimes going back hundreds of years. This historical trauma (intergenerational) trauma can have a far-reaching impact. For example, the descendants of people who experience trauma can sometimes have trauma symptoms too — even if they’ve never experienced a traumatic event themselves. 

What’s more, there’s evidence that trauma can potentially change how your genes express themselves (epigenetics), which can impact your health. And even though more research is needed in this area, there’s some evidence that genetic changes could potentially affect future generations as well. 

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What are some strategies for coping with racial trauma?

Experiencing racism can impact your identity and self-worth, and may even leave you feeling voiceless. For many people, simply identifying and naming racial trauma can be a powerful first step. Other people find coping strategies can help them to manage symptoms of racial trauma, and to find strength and healing. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Protect yourself 

  • Avoid known triggers, or come up with a plan for self-care.

  • Set boundaries, and seek relationships and communities where you feel safe and supported. 

  • Plan ahead for coping with racist situations, people, or places.

Process your experiences 

  • Learn to identify and name symptoms of racial trauma.

  • Connect with other BIPOC to share your experiences.

  • Find a creative outlet for your feelings and experiences, like journaling, poetry, or art.

Practice self-care

  • Take care of your body: eat, sleep, exercise, rest, and breathe. 

  • Take breaks from social media or the news.

  • Consider mindfulness, prayer, or other spiritual practices.

  • Engage in activities that bring you joy.

  • Create a personalized self-care wheel to keep coping strategies close at hand. 

  • Be gentle with yourself. 

Protest 

  • Consider engaging in activism or resistance that resonates for you. 

  • Find like-minded people and allies to help amplify your voice. 

  • Find your places of power in your community or nation. 

Create a Racism Recovery Plan

The Racism Recovery Plan (RRP) is part of the Racial Trauma Toolkit created by the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture. The RRP is a 7-step customizable action plan for identifying and processing racial trauma. It can help you create personalized strategies for grounding yourself before, during, and after a race-based traumatic experience. 

Where can I go to get more support?

It can be hard to get help. Language barriers, cultural expectations, problems accessing care, and lack of trust in the medical system can all get in the way. And for many BIPOC, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even harder to find care. 

If you’re hesitant about reaching out, you’re not alone. For example, in one 2013 study Black people — especially Black men — were concerned about mental health stigma, and were apprehensive about seeking care. And in data from the National Latino and Asian American Study (NLAAS), Asians were three times less likely to seek out mental health care than whites. 

But fortunately, there are lots of options for getting support — from apps, to peer groups, to trained healthcare professionals. It’s important to find something that is a good fit for you as an individual. Look for options that appeal to you, where you feel confident that your race and ethnic identity are valued.

BIPOC mental and physical wellness resources 

BIPOC-focused mental health apps 

BIPOC-supportive therapy resources

COVID-19 resources

The bottom line

Racial trauma is real, and can directly affect your mental and physical health. By acknowledging racial trauma, you can find the strategies and support that you deserve, and can let the healing process begin — both for yourself, your community, and for future generations.

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