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4 ways to cope with racial trauma amid the coronavirus pandemic

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For the past few weeks, headlines about ongoing acts of racism, police brutality and protests have trended in the news and on social media. These stories, along with those that detail the impact of today's pandemic, have had a huge impact on our mental and emotional state at work and at home. 

For many black Americans, these tragic headlines often lead to ongoing mental health issues that experts categorize as racial trauma. 

"Racial trauma," according to marriage and family therapist Dr. George James, "is the physical and psychological impact, and sometimes symptoms, on people of color who have experienced racism." This includes seeing and hearing about the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others. It also includes feeling and experiencing injustices in everyday life through the microaggressions black people face inside and outside of work. "An accumulation of all of this," he tells CNBC Make It, "creates racial trauma."

Below, James and counseling psychologist Dr. Candice Nicole detail four ways for coping with racial trauma amid today's exhausting news. 

Crowds gather for a Black Lives Matter rally in Washington Square Park on June 6, 2020 in New York.
Noam Galai | Getty Images

1. Recognize the personal impact of these stressors

One of the first steps to knowing how to cope and deal with racial trauma is to first identify how these experiences are impacting you personally. According to Nicole, experiencing or seeing ongoing acts of racism can impact you on a mental, emotional and physical level.  

On the mental level, she says, you may experience racing thoughts, a lack of concentration or an internalized sense of racism where you consciously or unconsciously accept the idea that white people are superior to people of color. If you experience any of these symptoms, then Nicole says writing down your thoughts and journaling can be a huge help. 

"It doesn't have to be pages long," she clarifies, "unless you want it to be. [But] just jotting down a few words to capture what you're thinking is enough."

For individuals who have emotional reactions to these experiences, such as symptoms of sadness, anger, fear, hopelessness or numbness, Nicole says "talking to a loved one who will allow you to be vulnerable may be helpful." And, James adds that talking to a spiritual mentor or therapist can also be useful. 

For someone who has a physical reaction where they feel muscle tension, their heart racing or moments of fatigue, Nicole says stretching, exercising, dancing or doing some form of physical movement will help you to release energy in a healthy way. 

2. Meditate

Regardless of the symptoms you develop from racial stressors, Nicole says meditation can be a great coping tool for anyone. 

In 2016, she created the Black Lives Matter Meditation for Healing Racial Trauma, which is a 17-minute guided meditation that uses mindfulness, affirmation and metta (loving kindness) to "address the multiple ways racism can target black people's well-being."

She created the meditation after the 2016 deaths of Philando Castile, a black man who was fatally shot by a police officer in Minnesota, and Alton Sterling, a black man who was fatally shot by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Following these incidents, Nicole says, "I felt both grief and the need to do something about it."

"My hope is that people don't simply use [the meditation] to heal and deal with racism," she says. "I want them to use it to prevent racial trauma and racial battle fatigue, so they can continue working to dismantle systems of racial oppression."

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3. Be honest with others about how you're feeling

During a time like today when friends and colleagues are checking in to see how you're coping with the current news, James and Nicole agree that it's important for you to be honest about your feelings.

"If you have trusted colleagues, let them know you're feeling emotionally spent so they can rightsize their expectations about how much you should produce during this time," says Nicole, while adding that you should feel encouraged to also take breaks throughout the day when needed. 

James adds that in addition to receiving the help and space you need, speaking up about how you're feeling can also help your colleagues to realize how much of an impact certain events can have. 

"The hard part is that sometimes people at work, or anywhere really, will feel like what they are experiencing other people do not value as real," he says, which can lead to some people feeling like they don't have the room to take time off to heal. 

That's why, James says, being honest about your emotional and mental health at work and at home can lead to you receiving the time and space needed to "really recharge." 

4. Take time to unplug

Being inundated with headlines about racism, violence and death can be overwhelming, which is why James says "it's okay to have a social media fast or to not pay attention to the news for the next few days." Doing this, he says, will help to lower any stress caused by daily updates of recent events. 

In addition to unplugging from media, James and Nicole also suggest unplugging from work by taking a mental health day that is free of deadlines, emails and conference calls. 

"Give yourself the grace and space not to have to be as productive as you typically are," says Nicole. "Many black people are taught to push through no matter how they're feeling. This is called John Henryism or the Superwoman/Strong Black Woman Syndrome."

Both of these theories point to the concept of black men and women being determined to engage and move about their day as normal as possible despite the emotional and mental toll of racial stressors. 

"I think sometimes [black people] don't even realize that they're in pain," adds James, while explaining that microaggressions and racial injustices are experienced so often inside and outside of work that black people sometimes overlook their impact. "They just show up like they normally do, and they just say, 'I'm tired' or 'I'm cranky.' But no, you're really feeling the impact of everything."

For professionals who want to continue working, or for those who can't take a mental day off, Nicole says it's important for you to "let the emotions fuel your creativity and output." This way, you can feel like you're releasing your stress in a positive way.

Check out: The best credit cards of 2020 could earn you over $1,000 in 5 years

Don't miss: How to be a better ally in the fight against racism at work and at home

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