Medical Examiner

Tuning Out

Repeated exposure to racial violence can trigger the same symptoms as PTSD. Give yourself a break.

racial violence on tv.
A protest against police violence against minorities in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Screenshot via CNN

Last week, America awoke to not one, but two murders of black males by way of police encounters. For most people of color, it becomes increasingly impossible to escape the flood of news coverage broadcasting gruesome details of the events that led to the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, as well as the subsequent shooting deaths of five police officers at an otherwise peaceful demonstration in Dallas, Texas. For many, these tragedies serve as an ever-present reminder of the racial barriers and biases that impact all of us, particularly people of color.

Of course, it is critical that such encounters are finally receiving the attention they deserve; we can only have these important conversations if we are accurately informed. In fact, media images of peaceful protesters being beaten by police helped turn the tide of the civil rights movement, and our current racial struggles are no less important.

But society-level awareness and individual awareness are very different things. Research shows that experiencing discrimination, especially when chronic in nature, is associated with a host of negative physical and mental health outcomes, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even psychosis. We are increasingly beginning to understand that even watching depictions of racial violence can take an emotional and psychological toll. And between the news cycle and ongoing stream of social media, when these events happen, the exposure is constant. Repeated viewing can be particularly harmful among those who have experienced discrimination in the past—especially those who identify with the victims, such as black Americans and other stigmatized groups.

At the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville, we have been conducting research to better understand how people prepare for and cope with racism. In our work, we are constantly surveying people about their responses to racism, which has led us to recognize that black Americans use a range of strategies to cope with racism, some positive and some harmful. For example, we recently conducted a study where black students believed they were required to work on a class project with a white student who espoused racist beliefs. In a region where people love their Confederate flags, this scenario was very believable to our subjects, who had to mentally scramble to decide how to cope with this racial stressor. While some subjects became very distressed, we found that the most resilient students looked at the situation as a challenge. These tended to be students who highly valued their ethnic-minority membership and believed that they could change the views of their white partner through proactive, pro-social methods, such as challenging misconceptions and teaching the other person what black people are really like—in other words, small acts of everyday activism. (Because we stopped the study there, we don’t have data on whether these approaches would have worked, though there is promising preliminary research that such techniques have been effective in changing attitudes about around LBGT people.)

When we informed our black student subjects that they would not actually be working with the biased partner, some were disappointed, but most gave a loud sigh of relief. Working to change one person at a time can be rewarding, but it is also draining. The collective fight against racism is as exhausting, especially when it often seems that things don’t change. Especially when it continues to play out everywhere you look—in the news, and on your social media accounts.

In wake of these realities, the hardest coping responses to implement are often the simplest in nature. Although the need for action and change is real, self-care is often overlooked as perhaps the most important reaction. Self-care can alleviate some of the pain and give people space to think about upsetting situations in a more helpful way. It may seem simple to recommend that the best thing to do is take better care of yourself, but everything we know about psychology tells us we should all be employing these methods more frequently. Racism is, among other things, a psychological stressor, so one obvious way to combat this is to better care for your psychological needs.

So how do you do this? When a news event means that disturbing messages will be replaying on social media, the best approach is sometimes to unplug and disconnect from the negativity. Locate your support systems—friends, family, even a therapist—and make use of them. Some other excellent ways to recharge include exercise (to help burn off frustration and elevate mood), religious or spiritual practices (e.g., prayer, meditation), seeking distraction from cues of racism (e.g., focusing on family or work), and participating in relaxing activities (e.g. reading, listening to music, massage, etc.). These basic self-care practices can be essential to managing the distress caused by small and large racial injustices alike.

In cases where self-care is neglected, the emotional weight of racism can lead people to engage in negative coping, such as remaining in denial, engaging in substance use, verbal or physical aggression, and perpetual self-blame. For those trapped in a pattern of maladaptive coping, choosing the positive strategies, such as self-care, will be a better route to mental health and the achievement of personal goals in face of racial adversity. For those stuck in a pattern of negative coping or who are unable to move past feelings of traumatization, mental health care from an experienced culturally informed clinician is recommended. Meanwhile, our lab is continuing to conduct research not only on how to cope with racism, but how to reduce it through education, social connection, and empathy.

This past week we were all confronted with ugly images that were particularly distressing to those of us impacted by a legacy of racial historical, cultural, and community traumas. People of color were further tasked with re-entering environments where the threat of racism may be commonplace. Coping with racism is no easy task, especially when many today deny the role of racism in the lives of stigmatized minorities. As we move through these difficult experiences, it will be important for each of us to make choices that reflect positive coping strategies that move us forward as individuals. It is when we are our strongest that we will be most able to create a more compassionate society.