Over the last several years, social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate have brought increasing attention to the different ways that racism can occur. And how it can impact people of color. For example, more and more people are learning about issues like systemic racism. But also the way that it affects access to opportunities and resources. People are learning about more subtle issues too, such as stereotypical language in media and microaggressions in interpersonal interactions. For Asian Americans specifically, we have seen a drastic rise in both discriminatory language (in media publications and from politicians) and outright hate and violence. Largely due to the stigma surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic.
Both these obvious and more subtle forms of racism can leave long-lasting impacts on people of color. As they endure multiple incidents of racism throughout their lives, these moments of trauma can accumulate in the form of emotional and physiological stress. And this cumulative impact of trauma, called racial trauma, can significantly affect a person’s mental and physical health. For many Asian Americans, who feel like they can’t go a day without hearing about another act of anti-Asian hate, racial trauma is our present reality. In this blog, we’ll talk about how racial trauma can show up, and how trauma-focused treatments can help.
What does Racial Trauma look like?
Racial trauma can accumulate through a lifetime of microaggressions, ‘subtle’ acts of exclusion, and outright acts of aggression and violence. If you experience racism in multiple settings at multiple times, you will begin to expect it everywhere. At all times, in order to try to prepare for it. This constant sense of hypervigilance is an attempt to keep yourself safe, but it can also be utterly exhausting. If your experiences of racism have been more ‘subtle, it can also feel very isolating and invalidating for others to dismiss your experiences. Or if they claim that ‘you’re making it a bigger deal than it is.’
Because it can feel like you may experience racism any time you are in a public place, you may begin to avoid certain situations or interactions. You may find yourself unintentionally ruminating on previous traumatic memories or possible horrible experiences. You may also experience a sense of disconnection from your present experience (called dissociation). Or, you may even experience a sense of restless anxiety and irritability without a distinct cause. All of this mental stress can then result in difficulty concentrating or sleeping.
If any of these symptoms sound familiar to you, it might be because many of these symptoms occur in individuals who are dealing with PTSD. While your personal experiences with racism may not have been life-threatening, that doesn’t mean that they’re not traumatic. It also doesn’t mean that they can’t cause stress after the fact. Plus, you can also experience trauma from witnessing or hearing about acts of violence experienced by someone else. For Asian Americans, it has been exceptionally painful to watch the news or keep up with social media. It feels like we constantly see members of our community face discrimination and hate crimes.
Beyond PTSD, racial trauma can also lead to symptoms of anxiety. If you feel unsafe living your daily life or depressed, if you feel hopeless and helpless in trying to live your life. These symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress can also lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms. This can be mechanisms such as drinking more than you intend to or hurting yourself.
What are the long-term consequences of Racial Trauma?
Whether your experiences with specific symptoms of anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress are short-term or long-term, you may still face long-term consequences of racial trauma. These consequences can include the ways that you think about yourself and the world around you. It can also be the ways that your body carries the stress.
Your ability to trust in others may be significantly impacted. And your ability to trust in yourself (to know when situations are safe or not) may be impacted too. You may also struggle to feel hope that you can live an enjoyable and fulfilling life. As a result, you may not feel motivated to work towards your goals or believe in any goals at all. Because of deeply held, unconscious beliefs that the world is unsafe, you may also find that you perpetually carry a sense of fear. Which is not a sustainable way to live.
Chronic exposure to racism and racial trauma can lead to health conditions. Health conditions such as elevated blood pressure, a compromised immune system, inflammation in the body, gastrointestinal distress, and chronic pain. In combination with poor sleep, the overall negative impact of trauma on physiological functioning can then increase the risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease and kidney disease.
Beyond the impact on ourselves, racial trauma can also impact the next generation. It does this through the ways that we may interact with our children and grandchildren. For example, we may raise our children to be fearful of the world, in an attempt to prepare and protect them. While this might make sense on a surface level, it would not allow our children to feel safe or secure in their lives. In other words, racial trauma can be passed on and can become intergenerational trauma.
How can EMDR therapy help?
EMDR is a treatment approach that uses eye movement desensitization to process traumatic experiences. It helps individuals reframe their trauma-informed beliefs to be more adaptive. It addresses the negative thoughts and beliefs that you may have internalized due to racial trauma. So, you can begin to heal and move forward feeling more empowered in your life. In addition to the EMDR itself, your therapist can also help with other coping tools and strategies. These coping skills can include setting boundaries, using breathing and grounding techniques, finding ways to rest, and connecting with your community.
To illustrate, you may find that a certain memory of a racist experience still holds significant emotional weight for you. In trying to learn from this memory and protect yourself from future similar experiences, you may have begun to think or believe that you are powerless, unsafe, unimportant, or unwanted. As your therapist helps you work through these memories in a safe environment, you will also begin to shift these negative thoughts into more positive ones. That you do have agency and power, that you can keep yourself safe, and that you can find spaces where you are considered important and valuable.
While EMDR therapy does not mean that you will never be affected by racial trauma again, it does mean that you will be more prepared to cope with traumatic experiences and to advocate for yourself and your community.
Interested in EMDR Therapy in Los Angeles, CA?
Our EMDR therapists can help you begin to process the racial trauma you have experienced. You deserve to live without having to carry all of the weight of your experiences all the time. To get started with EMDR therapy sessions at our Los Angeles-based therapy practice, follow the steps below.
- Request an appointment using the prompt below or our contact form.
- Begin meeting with a skilled EMDR therapist.
- Process what’s weighing you down and start feeling more empowered
Read more about online EMDR as a treatment for mental health concerns like anxiety or PTSD:
Other Services Offered with Yellow Chair Collective
The therapists at our Los Angeles and New York City-based counseling center can offer support for a number of mental health concerns. This is why we are happy to offer support with more than just EMDR. We work with teens, individuals, and couples, and address issues such as anxiety, postpartum therapy, trauma, and PTSD. Our team can also provide culturally sensitive treatment for highly sensitive people, support groups, burnout, and workshops for organizations. All of these services can be utilized in-person or online anywhere in California or New York.
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