Understanding Race-Based Stress

by Jonathon Carrington

When it relates to mental health, terms such as “trauma informed care” are now part of the lexicon in supporting youth and vulnerable populations. Various types of trauma can affect everyone differently and can have profound negative emotional, mental, and physical effects on the brain and body. 

One focus area at Sunstone Counseling is unpacking racial trauma, or race-based stress, which is the mental and physiological symptoms that individuals experience after an exposure to distressing or life-threatening experiences, by people, programs, policies, processes, and systems impacted by systemic racism. While systemic racism is a complex issue that largely impacts communities of color, there is room for opportunity to explore definitions of systemic racism, the psychological effects of systemic racism, and interventions to overcome the short- and long-term effects of race-based stress.

Defining racism

Racism is a term that is used loosely, and can generate misunderstanding, confusion, and distress. Before unpacking the psychological impact of racism, and its effects on one’s mental health, it is important to understand the social and historical underpinnings of racism. 

Early scientists and scholars in the 18th century defined racism with a belief that there was empirical evidence that existed, supported, and justified racial stratification,  discrimination, and inferiority and superiority. While these beliefs are now considered insignificant, this racial conditioning has had long lasting effects on our society. The concept of racism has become systemic and is supported by a power system that believes that all people of color are inferior in every aspect of their lives: economics, education, entertainment, employment, law, religion, sex and sexuality, military, and healthcare, just to name a few. These power systems were structured and designed so that individuals who identify as White have greater access to privileges, benefits, and resources than those who do not identify as White. 

It can be difficult and challenging for individuals to understand racism as systemic.  Early pioneers of racial science invested in resources to prove race as a biological fact of life, while race has always been a social construction – which is a worldview informing shared assumptions about reality. Another way to understand race and racism as a systemic social construct is to observe how race and racism shapes the thoughts and behaviors of young children. It is rare that toddlers are discriminatory to another child based on their racial conditioning and programming. We witness the harmonious play and interaction between children with the exception of age-appropriate behaviors such as tantrums and disagreements. But as children grow up and are influenced by messages from their families, friends, culture, media, and societal norms, we see thoughts, feelings, and behaviors about race and identity begin to emerge and develop over time. Sometimes, those thoughts, feelings, and behaviors hold the belief of White superiority over Black individuals.

The effects of race-based stress 

Traumatic experiences can be real or perceived, directly experienced or witnessed, interpersonal, or systemic. And the effects of trauma can be inherited, transferred within communities, and passed down across generations. Individuals and groups who experience trauma as pervasive and covert, particularly those who have experienced racial trauma, can find it difficult to recognize the impact, understand its consequences, and overcome short- and long-term effects. 

Dr. Joy DeGruy coined the term Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS) in her book, “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing,” which describes historical and intergenerational trauma as a result of systemic oppression and slavery impacting people of African descent in America. Systemic racism continues to perpetuate harm, injury, and violence as evidenced by the recent casualties of Black men and women by law enforcement which is controlled and operated by White dominated power systems. 

PTSS shares similar symptoms with the commonly known diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder including intrusive or recurrent memories, traumatic nightmares,  dissociative reactions, difficulty concentrating, feeling jumpy, being easily angered, and feelings of hopelessness and depression. For those who were brought to the Americas from Africa, they were exposed to a lifetime of traumas, which were never addressed, nor did the traumas ever stop. African Americans have continued to experience traumas similar to those who were enslaved in history through centuries of systemic oppression and the belief that Whiteness is superior to Blackness. 

The effects of PTSS and other race-based stressors have increased unemployment rates, destroyed families, interrupted ethnic and cultural values around identity and relationships, and affected short- and long-term goals. Getting professional support to address the threats of continuing assaults means that we must develop healthy coping mechanisms to support and heal ourselves, our families, and our communities from the insidious and corrosive effects of systemic racism.  

 Overcome the effects of race-based stress

The first step in healing from the effects of race-based stress or racial trauma is to affirm and validate one’s own reality and lived experiences. Become educated about the people in history who suffered abuse and a lifetime of traumas, but still managed to rise and overcome adversity. By understanding where we’ve come from, we can identify strengths and build upon them. 

From here, individuals can integrate solutions and strategies into their everyday life, including, but not limited to:

  • Developing a positive sense of identity about race and heritage to improve your sense of self-worth. Reading, listening to, watching, or attending events that reinforce your identity helps to reduce feelings of powerlessness and increase resilience.
  • Enhancing your social or spiritual support systems to reclaim a sense of community and belonging. Lean on trusted people for support, encouragement, validation, and allyship. Know you are not alone in this healing. 
  • Implementing calming practices like yoga, deep breathing, and meditation before, during, and after a traumatic incident. Traumatic events and experiences activate the threat response (fight-flight-freeze) and centering and grounding practices help regulate the nervous system. 
  • Taking breaks from the news and social media. It is important to be informed but control and monitor the amount of information and data you digest from 24-hour news cycles and social media posts that are often focused on negative and potentially triggering racist events. Give yourself permission to disengage and set boundaries when you re-engage with media. 

Know you are not alone 

Systemic racism is a pervasive, corrosive, and harmful experience that has affected our culture and society for centuries, particularly impacting individuals and groups that have been historically marginalized and oppressed. Since the injuries resulting from intergenerational trauma occurred on multiple levels, we must heal in multiple ways and on multiple levels. Everyone is faced with carrying on our lives in such a way that we are able to manage life’s daily stressors and enjoy the benefits of living a happy and healthy life.  Seeking help from a trauma-informed culturally competent therapist can assist with managing and overcoming the effects of race-based stress. Trauma-informed individual therapy and group therapy are beneficial avenues to explore concerns, process experiences, and take the necessary steps to heal. 

If you’re struggling to process your life experiences around your identity or feel like no one else understands you, know that you are not alone. At Sunstone, we have empathetic counselors who are experienced in addressing and overcoming race-based stress and its traumatic effects. We tailor a therapeutic process to meet your needs and offer a foundation of trauma-informed, collaborative, multicultural, culturally-sensitive, and mindfulness practices.

Reach out to Sunstone today to schedule a consultation and work with a counselor who will guide and support you in developing the tools, techniques, and strategies to care for your whole self. 

Understanding and Dismantling Racism Resources

  • Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing by  Dr. Joy Degruy 
  • My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem
  • Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson 
  • Healing Racial Trauma: The Road to Resilience by Sheila Wise Rowe
  • Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out by  Ruth King
  • The Racial Healing Handbook: Practical Activities to Help You Challenge Privilege, Confront Systemic Racism & Engage in Collective Healing by Annaliese Singh 
  • The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness by Rhonda Magee
  • How to Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X Kendi
  • Why Are the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Any Other Conversations about Race by Dr. Beverly Tatum
  • Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice by Paul Kivel 
  • Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk about Race and How To Do It by Shelly Tochluk 
  • Understanding White Privilege:  Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race by Frances Kendall 
  • Disrupting White Supremacy by Jennifer Harvey, Karin Case, and Robin Hawley Gorsline
  • White Fragility: Why It’s Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin D’Angelo 
  • What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy by Robin D’Angelo
  • Seeing White – John Biewen – https://www.sceneonradio.org/seeing-white/
  • Code Switch – podcast 
  • Brene Brown with Ibram X. Kendi – podcast 
  • Come Through – podcast 

Would you like to learn more?
Sunstone Counseling aims to support you throughout life’s challenges. Stay up-to-date on upcoming workshops and group sessions, and get mental health tips and resources when you connect with us.

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