Understanding Race-Based Stress

by Sunstone Counseling in collaboration with 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 in trauma-informed care at Sunstone Counseling is race-based stress, which are symptoms that individuals experience after being exposed to distressing or life-threatening experiences, such as systemic racism or discrimination. 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 effects of systemic racism, and solutions and interventions to overcome the short- and long-term effects of race-based stress.

Understanding 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 underpinnings of racism. 

The concept of racism 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 systems were structured and designed so that those who are superior have greater access to privileges, benefits, and resources.

A 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. 

The effects of race-based stress 

Individuals and groups who experience trauma, particularly those who have experienced race-based 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.

PTSS symptoms are similar to those occurring in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which includes intrusive or recurrent memories, traumatic nightmares, dissociative reactions, difficulty concentrating, feeling jumpy, being easily angered, and feelings of hopelessness and depression.

The effects of race-based stressors have increased unemployment rates, destroyed families, interrupted ethnic and cultural values, and reduced quality of life. Seeking professional support to address race-based stress despite ongoing systemic oppression means learning healthy coping mechanisms and self-care strategies to overcome its long-lasting effects.

Overcome the effects of race-based stress

Acknowledging, validating, and affirming one’s lived experiences is the first step to overcoming race-based stress. Grounding oneself in one’s perceptions and reality is crucial. Become informed about trauma, its effects, and the people throughout history who experienced ongoing systemic oppression, yet became resilient and overcame adversity. Understanding the past can help those who have survived their traumas identify their strengths, and work to build upon them. 

Trauma survivors can then work to apply and integrate self-care strategies into their everyday life to remain grounded, including, but not limited to:

  • Developing a stronger sense of self through reading, listening to, watching, or attending events that affirms your sense of self and reduces strong feelings of powerlessness while increasing resilience.
  • Improving your support systems to move out of isolation into a sense of community and belonging. Lean on trusted people for support, encouragement, validation, and allyship. Know you are not alone. 
  • Integrating self-care practices like yoga, journaling,  deep breathing, and meditation before, during, and after traumatic incidents. Centering and grounding practices help calm the nervous system. 
  • Giving yourself permission to disengage and set boundaries and limits when re-engaging with people, places, and things that contribute to race-based stress.

Know you are not alone 

Systemic racism is an experience that has historically impacted societies and cultures for centuries, particularly impacting historically marginalized and oppressed individuals. Overcoming and healing from these experiences can occur in multiple ways and on multiple levels. Seeking support from a trauma-informed, culturally competent practitioner can assist with learning the tools to manage and overcome the effects of race-based stress. Trauma-informed individual therapy and group therapy are beneficial avenues to explore concerns, process experiences, and take necessary steps to heal. 

If you are struggling to process these life experiences 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 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. 

To schedule a consultation with post contributor and BIPOC mental health counselor, Jonathan Carrington, visit his bio.

Understanding and Dismantling Racism Resources