Racial Trauma

Racial Trauma: Living and Coping with Emotional Injuries

Race-based traumatic stress, as described by Mental Health America, is an ’emotional injury’ resulting from the traumatic stressors of individual and systemic racism. Each encounter with racism can re-traumatize a person.

Marginalized groups can experience racial trauma after a single incident or from ongoing triggers. However, an individual doesn’t have to encounter direct racism to be affected. For instance, the viral video of the murder of George Floyd exacerbated fear of policing and social justice systems among Black communities. This example highlights how systemic racism makes individuals feel unsafe in their own communities. Whether individuals experience racism firsthand or not, they can still be negatively impacted, feeling on guard or on edge, affecting their sleep, concentration, and self-perception.

Justice for George Floyd Protest

In fact, a meta-analytic review across 134 independently published studies on perceived discrimination and health outcomes found that discrimination significantly impacts both mental and physical health, and that the emotional impact of racial discrimination can lead to physical health problems like calcification of arteries. Racial trauma presents itself in symptoms like depression (through feelings of hopelessness), anxiety (through fear and hypervigilance), and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (through dissociation and flashbacks/nightmares).

What Triggers Racial Trauma:
  • Witnessing or experiencing microaggressions such as assumptions made based on race
  • Stereotyping
  • Seeing injustice time and time again
  • Experiencing racial slurs, comments, and hateful remarks
Coping Strategies:
Limit Media Exposure

While the media can shed light on political and social justice issues, it also highlights deeply saddening and misleading stories that can become heavy to carry overtime. Use your judgment and step back from reading the news and consuming media if it becomes overbearing or anxiety-inducing.


Racial trauma makes you feel small, helpless, and afraid to advocate for yourself, But don’t shy away from conversations. Join forces with like-minded community members to speak up about issues. It isn’t easy but it’s the only way to get others to listen and change their perspective.

Talk It Out

A study found that women who did not open up to others about their experiences with racism and kept their emotional pain to themselves were found to have shorter telomere length. Telomeres are a biomarker for aging, and shorter telomeres indicate premature morbidity. In comparison, women who did discuss their trauma had longer telomere lengths. This inverse relationship suggests that bottling up pain, trauma, and heavy emotions are not good for our physical health, let alone our mental health. So, finding a community or a professional to speak to can be very beneficial.

Sharing your experience with someone you trust.
Find Community

Finding a local advocacy group would also allow individuals to voice their concerns and create change at a grassroots level by lobbying politicians, participating in deputations, joining a rally, etc. This may help improve the larger systemic issues of racism and build a sense of community based on a social justice cause.

At Across Boundaries, we are more than just a facility that provides mental health and addiction programs – we are a community. Our service users get to know each other and find comfort in knowing that somebody else shares a similar experience. They have candid and transparent discussions in a safe space without judgement, and get the supports they need to understand and address these experiences.

Creating change and advocacy with other community members.
Find a Therapist from a Similar Racial Background:

Some counselors without lived experience may not be able to provide the adequate support that individuals with race-related trauma need. Having a therapist from a similar racial background can provide an innate understanding of what it’s like simply existing as a person from a marginalized community, and that can be validating and therapeutic.

If this is the case for you, and you would like to receive support from a counselor with a similar background, call us at 416-787-3007.

All of our staff are from racialized backgrounds, and we can provide services in 15+ different languages.

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