We asked Black therapists what advice they have for Black folks as they care for their mental health during difficult times. Here are seven educational and actionable tips they shared with us.
Recognize racial trauma as a mental health issue
Trauma in mental health is defined as a psychological reaction to an intensely distressing experience, and in racial trauma, this is marked by racially-driven experiences.
Racial trauma can be felt at a historical and community level — for example, intergenerational traumas passed down through unconscious cues or messages — as well as on a personal level through media exposure to high-profile killings and direct experiences of discrimination.
Racial trauma can be instigated by a sudden violent incident, or by ongoing fear of threat, microaggressions, and vicarious experiences.
The repeated exposure to violent acts – whether via witnessing firsthand or repeated media coverage – certainly fall into these definitions. Especially when accumulated, these can cause psychological trauma for many Black folks.
Giving a name to painful experiences can help make sense of the emotional or physiological symptoms you may be having, as well as develop an understanding as to how you might address these challenges.
Find personal meaning to re-establish a sense of control
While the negative effects of trauma on mental health are well-documented, a psychological model called Posttraumatic Growth (PTG) also suggests the potential for positive change following traumatic life events. This approach acknowledges the resilience and growth that can occur after a trauma, and ways in which an individual can derive meaning from the event that transcends the painful experience.
It’s important to note that the presence of growth doesn’t exclude or minimize the impact of the trauma and its aftereffects: the pain, grief, suffering, and distress are still very much felt. However, finding meaning can give individuals a sense of purpose to persevere, grow, and heal from trauma and systems of oppression.
As Dr. Melba Sullivan, a clinical psychologist in New York City, explains: “A both/and approach of remembering the generations of wisdom that have stood for Black lives and noting the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and traumatic stress that are natural reactions to systemic oppression are required. It is as important to acknowledge the resilience and resistance of black people; we wouldn’t be here if that wasn’t the truth of who we are.”
She adds: “Survival strategies are warranted: fighting against, fleeing/avoiding, bracing/enduring, freezing/numbing/dissociating, and over/undercontrolling. Thriving, healing practices are available: standing with and for our lives, turning toward, changing what we can, tapping into individual and collective power and wisdom, and flexible boundaries is necessary. Now more than ever, our ancestors want us to thrive.”
Validate and express your feelings through social supports
Dr. Nefertiti Nowell, a psychologist in Chicago, reminds Black folks of the importance of validating their experiences: “Know that your feelings are valid. Many of us keep our emotions locked away and tucked down so that there will not be an accusation of being the “Angry Black Person.” However, know and realize that suppressing emotions can often make them feel more intense than when you allow yourself to feel them. Feeling overwhelmed with emotion is okay.”
Social supports are an important component to trauma recovery, and can provide an outlet healing, especially in a moment when we’re disconnected by circumstance.
You may consider connecting with family and friends, finding common ground with those who have been advocating for change or joining groups that provide a sense of community and solidarity.
Take a moment to self-soothe, care for your body, and rest
Dr. Nowell reminds Black folks to take a moment to self-soothe.
“There are a range of emotions that are being felt right now, and you have a right to feel all of them,” she says. “However, do not let your emotions hijack you. Self soothing is finding a way to get back to your center and be grounded, even when the world around you is in an upheaval.”
Dr. Nowell recommends writing out the self-soothing activities that work best for you so that they’re ready to reference whenever you’re feeling stressed, sad, or simply in need of a reset.
“Take an hour to write a list of the positive things that bring you peace and joy,” she advises. “The list should be as long as possible so that when you feel out of sorts, you can use these things to calm down. For example, you may enjoy music, walking, art, prayer, reading, or mentoring others. The list should include things that are accessible to you.”
Mindfulness and meditation may also prove beneficial during this time, adds Jaquez, since these practices produce positive changes in the brain by calming down fight-or-flight impulses triggered by anxiety, stress and trauma. Importantly, “meditation also strengthens the ability to process and manage our thoughts and feelings,” she says.