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Treatment Strategies for Race-Based Traumatic Stress

woman who may need therapy for racial trauma

Known as racial-based traumatic stress, or RBTS, racial trauma refers to injury from mental and emotional responses to experiencing racial discrimination, hate crimes, or racism. Those living under a system of discriminatory supremacy are most vulnerable to mental health challenges based on racial trauma. In the United States, this would be black people (especially black women) and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC).

Dealing with the effects of racial trauma can lead to physical and mental health symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These symptoms may include things like:

  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Recurring thoughts of the traumatic event
  • Hypervigilance
  • Low self-esteem
  • Physical reactions like insomnia, chest pain, and headaches
  • Mental distancing or avoidance

Racial trauma symptoms may look similar to PTSD symptoms, however, racial trauma is not considered a mental health condition by the criteria of diagnostic and statistical manual, rather, it is a mental injury that may occur to those living under systemic racism and oppression.

Can Racial Trauma Incidents Lead to PTSD? Consequences of Racial Trauma and Similarity to Complex Traumatic Stress

Therapy for racial trauma can be similar to therapy for complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). This is because racial trauma is complex, deep-seated, and can be experienced over and over again. Physical and verbal attacks experienced personally, seeing friends or family members exposed to racism, witnessing injuries to your community, and many other examples of continuing racial trauma.

Wound up in this overall category of trauma are direct traumatic stress and trauma, vicarious traumatic stress and trauma, and historical trauma. All of these negatively affect mental health.

Direct racial trauma refers to being on the receiving end of attacks of both personal and systemic racism. This can include heavy policing, verbal attacks, physical attacks, barriers to housing or health care, and microaggressions.

Vicarious racial trauma refers to having to deal with the indirect impacts of racial injustice, inequality, and racist actions. This type of traumatic stress can have just as much of a negative impact on physical and mental health as that of direct racial trauma.

Historical trauma is caused by racial wounds that are transmitted through the generations. The psychological trauma of enormous traumas such as slavery, the Holocaust, and Native boarding schools echo through families and communities for generations, disturbing the mental health and emotional well-being of many, and putting many more at risk for mental disorders.

Racial-Based Traumatic Stress: Assessment and Treatment Techniques for Trauma Rooted in Racism

For those who experience racial trauma, a racial trauma-informed therapist can be the best way to address racial stress and build a bridge toward healing. Mental health professionals can help, particularly those with a cognitive and behavioral practice, but for race-based traumatic stress, it may make clients more comfortable to be in a safe space with multicultural counseling experts.

The emotional impact of structural racism, everyday racism, and specific racial issues can lead to chronic stress in many communities and affect the mental health of millions of people. Psychological science has focused on racial trauma and stress only in recent years, and much of the scientific literature is fairly new.

However, the treatment strategies used in therapies that address racial trauma are effective and are similar to those used for complex PTSD symptoms. Race-based traumatic stress, including physical and verbal attacks, structural racism, and the inequality of social institutions, is ongoing and pervasive. Managing the impacts of racial trauma along with historical trauma is best done through therapy that works through cognitive and behavioral restructuring. Some forms of talk therapy that a multicultural therapist or counselor uses to work with race-based traumatic stress include:

  • Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)
  • Prolonged exposure (PE)
  • Eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)

Promoting Healthy Coping Strategies for Managing Racial Trauma

Mental health challenges caused by racial trauma can also be addressed through alternate treatment considerations such as healthy lifestyle habits and coping strategies. Coping doesn't erase the effects of racial discrimination or racial trauma, but can offer active steps to manage stress and redirect focus on living a fulfilling life. Some of these racial trauma resistance strategies include:

  • Self-care through things like listening to music, getting outdoors, getting moderate physical activity, and improving sleep habits
  • Social support through friends and family, and speaking with those who have also faced racial discrimination and other forms of race-based traumatic stress.
  • Implementing mindfulness techniques and relaxation exercises for mental health
  • Limit or control media use to avoid doom-scrolling, especially when it comes to stories of racial discrimination or the impact of racial trauma on your community
  • Using empowerment to take control of your own life and mental health
  • Seek therapy to deal with the impact of racial trauma, and any cognitive distortions or low self-esteem that stem from it

How can you help your community heal from racial trauma?

Experiencing racial trauma, including racial discrimination, internalized racism, physical assault, verbal attacks, and microaggressions that can occur in daily life, can lead to chronic stress and have a major impact on mental health and well-being. Among other treatment considerations is working with your community on racial issues and social justice causes. By coming together to tackle racial discrimination and heal the racial wounds that negatively affect others, you become empowered to help yourself as well as gain social support from others impacted by racial stress and trauma.

Some sites you can find resources to share with your community include:

Embracing Antiracism in Therapy Sessions

Racial trauma and racial stress caused by racial discrimination and systemic racism are deeply rooted and may require professional help. Healing is possible, and there are many resources for Black Americans, Indigenous people, Latinx, and other groups affected by racial trauma. There are many directories, including Asian People Directories, Jewish Directories, Therapy for Black Americans, Therapy for Black Women, and many more.

Because of the deeply personal nature of racial trauma, and its specific impacts on physical and mental health, people who seek therapy may prefer working with a professional who has experience with racial discrimination and special training in the specific area of racial trauma. 

Fortunately, this type of mental health care is more widely available today. By checking online directories for racial trauma practitioners, you can find a therapist in Brooklyn who provides therapy for racist experiences, like Williamsburg Therapy Group. If no counselor is available in your area, online therapy may be available.

Dealing with the emotional impact of racial trauma and racial discrimination is a fact of life, and a racial trauma-informed therapist can help begin the healing journey.

Book a Therapy Session in Brooklyn Today

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