How Racial Trauma Shows Up

Published on
February 16, 2024
Demi Fortson

The thing about researching anything medical, where you are looking up symptoms and causes, you start to not feel too hot. The same thing goes for your mental health. 

Wrestling with Words: Documenting Racial Trauma

Telling your co-founder that you’re going to write something – anything – about racial trauma, is that after spending enough time thinking about it, you start to feel that your mental health is not doing too well.
So when I told my co-founder I was going to look up the signs and symptoms of complex PTSD related to racial trauma, I thought it was going to be no problem. But when it actually came to reading about it and documenting it, I was beginning to feel uneasy.

In my experience, everyone calls these uncomfortable feelings bubbling under the surface something different.

Maybe it's stress, maybe it's nerves, maybe it’s anxiety, maybe it's ‘nothing …

It’s always difficult to put a name to a feeling. Not to say that you always have to. But, essentially, I was starting to think:

How can I do justice to something that has been so impactful in my own life – In so many of our lives? Something that is so universal yet so personal and individual?

The Lizzo Approach: Finding Empowerment Amidst Struggle

As I type this up, I am trying to remind myself that I am not alone in frequently feeling this type of hyper vigilance. It is so common for so many of us, because of our life experiences. In these moments, I tell myself:

I want to be the Lizzo of my own life.

And for those who don’t know, Lizzo (stage name for Melissa Jefferson) embodies the pure love, confidence, and overall female badass energy that I need to tap into once in a while. 

So, what did I come up with?

Racial trauma, or race-based traumatic stress (RBTS), refers to the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes. (Helms, J. E., Nicolas, G., & Green, C. E. , 2010. )

And, this can show up in so many ways. Sometimes, it’s because you experienced an outright and obvious hate crime. Sometimes, it’s because you see or experience systemic racism. Maybe, it’s just that you’ve experienced so many non-verbal microaggressions that they start to blur into one (you know, when no one says anything outwardly racist but they treat you differently, or you're in an environment that does not enable people who look like you). Or maybe, it’s just a knot that forms in your stomach from being in a space where you are the only one. The only person of color. The only woman. The only queer person. Or the only person with a disability. And unfortunately, this is not an uncommon phenomenon.

Managing Racial Trauma: Coping Strategies and Symptoms

Psychologically, racial trauma can cause symptoms that are similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Sometimes, this is referred to as Racial Battle fatigue; a term that describes the stress responses from belonging to a Racially oppressed group. Similarly to what soldiers experience on a battleground, the effects of managing hostile environments where everything is a constant battle, can create mental, emotional and physical strains on people of color.

Some of the symptoms can look like:

  • Re-experiencing distressing events
  • Stomach aches
  • Headaches
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Chronic Stress
  • Negative emotion such as depression & anxiety

Hyper vigilance Avoidance: less willingness to take risksOther times, the symptoms can be more about physical health, like:

  • Physical pain
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Hypertension
  • Digestive issues
  • Higher allostatic load

What’s “higher allostatic load?” you may ask? It’s what happens when the body is in a state of distress. Most of us know this as a “fight”, “flight” or “freeze” state (which also includes “fawn” for those versed in the topic but we’ll get into that another time). When this is consistent and chronic, the stress response system becomes taxed and hormones can be unbalanced; causing physical illnesses.

The most frustrating thing about all of this, is of course that a big part of the solution should be societal. It’s part of the reason why it’s so important, that we try our best to show up in our own lives; whether that’s to vote or join civic events. I’ve also gathered a few resources below, in case you want to work on what you may be experiencing with a professional.

In the meantime, the best remedy for what we’re going through is self-care. Not in the buzzword sense, but in the sense that Audre Lorde meant it; which prioritizes self-preservation over marketing terms. And, taking steps to care for your mind-, body-, and spiritual-self can be a protective measure and an act of resistance against racialized traumatic stressors.

And with that on your mind? — How do you do it? Do you write it out? Run it out? Bake it out? Sweat it out? Pray it out? Meditate it out? There’s no right or wrong answer; it’s about what you can do regularly; that makes you feel good in a whole body “yes” type of way. After all, sustainable habits is about sustainable processes that will enable you to become your best-self, in a way that is right for you on your terms. 

Take the Healing Further:
Journaling Prompts in the Mendu App

If you want a few ideas on how to get started, you can check out the following journaling prompts our upcoming Mendu app:

Try Out Audio Journaling

Take up space

We all want to take up space, but sometimes, it can be hard when you belong to a marginalized group. This is an invitation to take your power back. Try it out!
Taking Up Space
Taking Up Physical Space

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