These chronic mental and physical symptoms are the markers of Race-Based Traumatic Stress. Coined by Columbia professor and black psychologist, Dr Robert Carter, RBTS is a version of PTSD that is derived from the traumatic response to racial discrimination.
It can be triggered by direct experiences as well as indirectly through bearing witness to racial discrimination by way of exposure to media coverage on the subject – as we are now. “Similar to survivors of other types of trauma like sexual assault for example, RBTS can result in emotions such as fear, hypervigilance, self-blame, shame, confusion, and guilt, as well as physical symptoms like headaches, insomnia, body aches, and even memory difficulty,” explains decolonising psychologist, Dr Jennifer Mullan.
As a person of colour, the death of George Floyd (and so many others) at the hands of a white police officer doesn’t come as much of a surprise. However, like countless others, it has made me feel angry, sad, fearful, anxious and frankly, exhausted.
The racism I’ve personally experienced on a daily basis, has yet to become physical. But, like for most of the black people I know, it has presented itself in the form of microaggressions, gaslighting, fetishisation, and being tokenised in the workplace. Not to mention the disparities in education, and healthcare, that have over time begun to take a toll on my psychological wellbeing.
I’d hazard a guess that I’m not alone here. In fact, studies show a clear physiological response to racism for people of colour across the diaspora. “The daily injustices caused by the system of racism, have left our minds hyper aroused,” explains trauma therapist, Dr Mariel Buquè. “Given that the threat to black bodies is so prevalent, the mind becomes entrapped in the autonomic nervous system’s threat response, producing heightened levels of stress hormones, namely cortisol. In excess, cortisol can majorly impact both physical and mental health. We see it in the high levels of stress-related chronic illnesses (prevalent in black communities) like cardiovascular diseases, as well as mood disorders such as depression,” adds Buquè.
For me, dealing with racism has become second nature, so much so that I very rarely ‘check-in’ with myself. But understanding that we as black people are continually being retraumatised each time one of us suffers an injustice – makes it abundantly clear that the implementation of healing selfcare practices is of the utmost importance to support our mental health.
Take Time Out
As people of colour we carry the burden of not only being oppressed – with all that entails – but then having to do the work to educate our oppressors – this emotional labour is tiring. “Rest allows our minds, bodies, and emotions to recalibrate and recharge. It can come in many forms, from meditation, to walking, napping, or simply doing “nothing” all day,” shares Mullan.
Figure out what makes you feel most rested and do it without guilt. Switching off does not mean you don’t care what’s happening right now, or that you don’t want to assist white friends or colleagues who genuinely want to ‘do better’, but it’s important take time out for yourself. In the words of Civil Right activist Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Social media is a great tool for black activism, but when it comes to triggering images, the likes of Instagram can “reignite the hyperarousal and unwellness that black people tend to feel during tense times like these,” shares Buquè. Ration your exposure by avoiding social media when you wake up as ‘our brains can become destabilised early in the morning, which can produce a traumatic response called dissociation.
It is a coping mechanism where you disconnect from your surroundings because you feel too threatened. The mind reacts this way when it feels overwhelmed with anxiety and grief and can leave you feeling like you’re floating through your day. Instead, start with a grounding meditative practice. It’s a more “active” and empowering coping mechanism that will root you in wellness and help prepare you for the challenges ahead,” explains Buquè.
Find a Black Therapist
Historically, the black community have not had access to or sought out therapy in the same way as their white counterparts. However, therapy, particularly trauma focused styles, can have a profound impact on the way we deal with the effects of racism. “Although therapy is a luxury for many, it is slowly but surely becoming more accessible. If it’s an investment you can afford to make, seeing a black therapist or counsellor can be incredibly beneficial. It can eliminate the need to educate or over explain issues relating to racism during your sessions.
“It also means you don’t have to help your therapist navigate the challenges of existing within a black body, in order to fully understand your experiences. You’ll substantially reduce the risk of your therapist or counsellor saying something racially insensitive or outright racist to you, and you’ll likely feel safer expressing yourself and showing emotion to another black person,” shares Maya and Trudie, founders of Reign x Shine, the luxury wellness brand created with black women in mind. Organisations like Black Minds Matter, Pink Therapy, Mind, The Black, African, and Asian Therapy Network and Nafsiyat Intercultural Therapy Centre are great resources here in the UK.
If you’ve felt that your voice has been stifled, that you’ve had to keep quiet to keep yourself ‘safe’, and not disrupt the status quo, the idea of getting involved in activism can seem daunting. However, “when we take action, we feel less anxious, hopeless, and critical,” shares Mullan.
Show Racism the Red Card is the UK’s leading anti-racism educational charity, where you can volunteer. Stand Up To Racism organise events around the country that you can attend.
Join social think tank Race on the Agenda for the opportunity to participate on policy steering groups and donate if you can to Black Lives Matter UK’s Go FundMe page to aid them in developing and delivering healing practices and educational resources in black communities.
Develop and deliver training, police monitoring and strategies for the abolition of the police. As well as work alongside existing anti-racist organisations to strengthen the wider movement across the UK.