Racial Trauma is Real. Here Are Tips for How to Manage It

Watching videos of Black Americans being injured or killed creates trauma that can lead to emotional and physical symptoms. Dr. Shana D. Lewis, a licensed counselor, shares tips for how to manage race-based traumatic stress.

It has been a year of racial reckoning, punctuated by violent videos of Black Americans being injured or killed in police custody. And while the videos sparked action, they also took a toll on our collective mental health, and particularly the mental health of Black Americans. LX News host Ashley Holt reached out to a counselor, Dr. Shana D. Lewis, for some advice about how manage race-based traumatic stress.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Ashley Holt: Dr. Shana, let's start with these new terms a lot of us are hearing. Can you describe what qualifies as race-based trauma and how do we know if we're experiencing it?

Dr. Shana D. Lewis: So race-based trauma is any traumatic event that is the result of a racial issue… George Floyd's murder, us watching that as a community, is race-based trauma. Even though it did not happen to us... something that has a threat [against] someone else's life, perceived or real, [is traumatic]. We are helpless as a result of it. We cannot do anything about it. Daunte Wright, watching that on the news. Breonna Taylor. I mean, there's so many of them that we watch as a community. It did not happen to us, but it is race-based trauma because the cause of the traumatic event was based on a racial issue.

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Ashley Holt: So what happens when you have racial trauma or racial stress build up over time and you don't address it?

Dr. Shana D. Lewis: Well, it's the same result as anyone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder... When we sit and we watch these things repeatedly, when they happen to our community repeatedly, we walk around at a heightened state of alert. The brain chemistry changes. We're always in a state of fight or flight. We can have stomach issues as well, significant headaches. It can create depression as well. You don't feel safe in your world. And if you walk outside every day and you don't feel safe in your world, that is a heightened level of anxiety that is going to have an impact. If we don't figure out how to deal with it, we are basically going to be slowly dying from the inside out.

Ashley Holt: If you end up in a situation with people who can't empathize, or [who] invalidate your experience as a Black person in this country, how do you handle a situation like that?

Dr. Shana D. Lewis: That's a great question. I think it's important for us, first of all, to look for a community where we do feel that people hear us and that we belong and that we can relate. So when we do… engage with folks who don't hear us, who don't believe our experiences, who invalidate what it is that we're sharing, [it] won't have as great of an impact because we do have that space of community. But I would say to anyone [that] advocating for ourselves is actually a psychological component that helps us to feel better. So the feeling of helplessness is the one that continues to create more depression and more psychological distress. When we advocate for ourselves… we typically do feel better. I think it is OK to tell people, “I do not agree with you. I agree to disagree with you. And I no longer want to have this conversation.” Because continuing in a space with someone who does not hear you only is going to increase your levels of emotional activity and … you feel worse.

Ashley Holt: We used our social media accounts to have people send you questions. The first one is: How do you deal with discouragement, knowing that there's no immediate solutions to problems with our justice system?

Dr. Shana D. Lewis: So we have to understand that no matter what is happening around us, we still do have hope that we can effect change in what's happening in our world, even if it's on a small scale… If I can be in a space of advocating at a government level, do that. If I can go vote and make a difference and who gets elected, then do that. We cannot lose hope in our capacity to even make small changes that eventually create the large change we want to have.

Ashley Holt:  How do you stay informed without constantly triggering your anxiety?

Dr. Shana D. Lewis: We have to take what I call media diets. We cannot consume it all of the time. I would [suggest that] really we watch it once a day… But you have to stop and then engage in some things that you enjoy. Go back to your life where you can effect change in the space that you're in and not get overwhelmed by it, because it will overwhelm you and it absolutely will create lots of anxiety.

Ashley Holt: Dr. Shana, thank you for taking our call. We appreciate you.