The Ellie Blog

Mental health tips and insights

diverse people smiling

Racial Trauma Therapy: Understanding The Impact of Racism on Mental Health

As a society, it’s undeniable that we are still grappling with the deep-rooted wounds of racism, and for people of color, these struggles can have a very personal and complex impact on mental health.

Racial trauma, whether experienced firsthand or witnessed from afar, can have profound and lasting effects. According to a 2020 KFF poll, 63% of Black adults and 45% of Hispanic adults report that they have been treated unfairly within the last year because of their race or ethnicity while shopping, going to a restaurant or bar, in dealings with the police, at work, getting healthcare, and a variety of other situations.

When you experience racial trauma, it’s easy to feel helpless or angry at the world around you. However, there is hope for healing. By understanding your trauma, prioritizing your self-care, and exploring options for racial trauma therapy, you can learn how to improve your mental health and build resilience in the face of oppression.

Looking for a safe place to seek help? Reach out to Ellie Mental Health today to learn more.

Racial Trauma Defined

Also referred to as race-based trauma, racial trauma defines a person’s emotional response to a racist or discriminatory act. It is a term that defines the emotional and psychological harm that occurs when someone witnesses, is exposed to news coverage of, or experiences racism.

There are many experiences that can result in racial trauma, including:

  • Verbal and physical abuse
  • Hate crimes
  • Racism in the workplace
  • Brutality towards people of color
  • Racial discrimination
  • Microaggressions
  • Stereotypes
  • Racial profiling
  • Historical trauma
  • Institutional racism
  • Systematic inequities

Racial Trauma and PTSD

Racism can have a profound impact on your mental health, leading to symptoms similar to those seen in post-traumatic stress disorder, such as:

  • Intrusive thoughts or memories of the racist event
  • Avoiding triggers of distressing memories or emotions
  • Recurring flashbacks and nightmares
  • Hyper-vigilance, fear, anger, and anxiety
  • Depression or feelings of worthlessness
  • Self-blame and social withdrawal

Could You Have PTSD?

It’s important to note that not everyone who has experienced racial trauma will develop these symptoms. For some people, racial trauma PTSD may develop from a single racist event or an accumulation of racist experiences and ongoing stress and anxiety related to racism.

While trauma can have an intense and debilitating effect, healing can take a few days to a couple of months. However, PTSD covers a specific set of severe symptoms that typically begin about three months after the traumatic event and persist for at least a month. You could be diagnosed with PTSD if your symptoms match those listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Does PTSD Go Away on Its Own?

If you suspect you are experiencing PTSD, we highly recommend talking through your experience with mental health professionals who understand and specialize in treating race-based trauma or a trauma-informed therapist. With a healthy healing process, the effects of trauma will lessen with time (even if the memories linger). However, PTSD is caused by the brain struggling to resolve trauma, and symptoms can last for years if left untreated.

In the case of racial trauma, people may develop complex PTSD, which can occur when an individual experiences repeated or prolonged trauma. For instance, someone may have been a victim of racial violence, frequently experience racial discrimination in the workplace, and be exposed to upsetting news events. These events may traumatize the person again and again, further complicating PTSD symptoms and putting the nervous system in a constant high-alert state.

The Impact of Racial Discrimination on Mental Health  

Experiencing racial discrimination can impact many areas of your life and worsen your overall mental health. You may experience low self-esteem, self-worth, and self-perception. The devaluation, stereotypes, and negative judgments others have about your race can make you feel inadequate or inferior.


You may start to doubt your abilities, talents, and achievements. You may wonder if you are capable of reaching your goals if you deserve or truly earned your success, or if you have the same opportunities and chances at success as others.

Internalized Negative Beliefs

You may begin to internalize negative beliefs and stereotypes about your race or ethnic group. This can cause you to become hyperaware or even ashamed of your racial identity. You may feel a constant need to prove yourself, have a distorted image of yourself, or feel pressured to overcome biases associated with your race. These feelings can be overwhelming and seem to overshadow every area of your life.

Social Withdrawal

It’s not uncommon for people who’ve experienced racism to feel isolated or like an outsider. You may also look at the world around you and feel helpless, sad, frustrated, and downright enraged at the individuals, systems, and groups that you believe are a part of the issue. You may struggle to trust others or withdraw from society and loved ones.

Anxiety and Fear

Whether you’ve witnessed violent acts against people of your race or have experienced them firsthand, you may become more fearful and feel insecure and unprotected. This can lead to chronic stress and anxiety.


The impact of racial trauma can lead to depression, disillusionment, and cynicism. When faced with the deep-rooted inequalities and injustices that persist in society, it can challenge your faith in humanity and cause you to believe the world is dark and unjust.

Physical Reactions

Your physical and mental health are closely linked, and race-based trauma can cause bodily symptoms as well. You may experience headaches, stomach pain, trembling, sweating, fatigue, or aches and pains. These issues can become chronic, causing long-term insomnia, difficulties concentrating, or recurring pain.


While racial trauma leads to many negative emotions, it can also spark activism and spur individuals into action. In the face of racism, you may be spurred to advocate for change, challenge systematic inequalities, and work toward paving the path to a more inclusive and equitable world.

Strategies for Coping and Healing From Race-Based Trauma

Healing from race-based trauma is a personal journey, and it’s important to be patient with yourself during the process and seek support when needed. Your experiences and your reactions to them are valid. Here are some strategies and suggestions for coping with race-based trauma.

Recognize and Validate Your Emotions

You’re likely experiencing a range of emotions, including anger, sadness, frustration, or fear. Practice emotional acceptance by allowing yourself to observe and identify your emotions without judging them and trying to suppress or change them. Remember that you are not wrong for feeling hurt or traumatized. You are not weak or overreacting.

When experiencing negative emotions, your first reaction will likely be to push away the feelings or try to escape. While ignoring difficult feelings may make you feel better in the short term, struggling to accept your emotions can lead to unhealthy coping habits or prolong the healing process.

Practice Self-Care

Self-care can be a powerful tool for healing from racial trauma and counteracting the negative self-talk and internalized racism that often arises from racial trauma. Self-care activities, such as journaling, meditation, or deep breathing exercise, can help you process and regulate your emotions. Exercise is also an effective self-care method that releases endorphins, reduces stress, and provides a healthy outlet for pent-up emotions.

Creative activities, such as painting, writing, or making music, are very personal and calming activities that allow you to express your emotions and create something you’re proud of. You can also engage with others’ art. By reading books, listening to podcasts, or looking at art pieces, you can remember that you’re not alone in how you’re feeling, learn about yourself and the world around you, and build a sense of solidarity and community with others who have had similar experiences.

Additionally, consider finding opportunities to connect with your cultural heritage and engage in activities that celebrate your identity to foster a sense of pride, connection, and resilience.

Learn Healthy Coping Methods

Self-care and coping mechanisms can overlap. The key difference between the two is that self-care is a proactive and ongoing process that nurtures your mental health, while coping methods are specific actions or strategies you use to deal with acute stress, difficult emotions, or traumatic situations. While you should always incorporate self-care into your daily routine, you also need to be aware of how to cope when an internal or external event triggers memories or difficult emotions concerning racial trauma.

People may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as using substances to minimize emotional pain, escaping into social media, or acting violently toward themselves or others. These methods may provide temporary relief or distraction, but they are detrimental in the long run.

Alternatively, constructive coping mechanisms help you manage stress effectively, navigate challenging emotions, and support your overall well-being. They also can promote problem-solving, address the underlying causes of your distress, foster self-awareness and empowerment, strengthen relationships, and align with your personal values and goals.

Not everyone will benefit from the same coping mechanism, so you will want to take time to explore and find strategies that resonate with you and your situation. A few examples of healthy coping mechanisms can include:

  • Physical activities: exercising, doing yoga, going on a hike, gardening, stretching, or martial arts
  • Grounding activities: practicing mindfulness, meditating, doing progressive muscle relaxation, and deep breathing
  • Social activities: calling a friend, joining a support group, spending time with loved ones, seeking guidance
  • Creative activities: creating something physical, writing, journaling, singing, playing an instrument, or drawing
  • Healing activities: practicing gratitude, setting boundaries, seeking therapy, reading a self-help book, or completing a workbook

Set Healthy Boundaries

Setting boundaries for yourself and others is an essential part of the healing process for racial trauma. First, you should take time to identify what situations or conversations are distressing to you. Once you have a clear understanding of your triggers, be assertive and clear in communicating these boundaries with others. You may also need to examine your lifestyle and media intake and consider what you need to distance yourself from during this time.

It’s okay to disengage from situations that exacerbate your racial trauma or to remove toxic or racist individuals from your circle. In the first stages of healing from racial trauma, the best course of action may be to minimize your exposure to your triggers, which might mean turning off the TV or walking away from an upsetting conversation.

However, over time and with professional guidance, you may choose to gradually expose yourself to triggers in a controlled and safe environment. This approach can help desensitize and reduce the intensity of your emotional reactions to triggers.

Seeking Racial Trauma Therapy From a Mental Health Professional

There are many professional resources available to help you heal. A therapist, counselor, or other types of mental health professionals can offer specialized guidance and interventions tailored to your needs. They can help you navigate the complex emotions, triggers, and challenges associated with racial trauma while taking into account your unique traits and experiences.

If you feel as if there is no one you can unpack your emotions with, counseling is a safe and judgment-free zone where you can talk about what happened, seek emotional validation, process your emotions, and become equipped with the tools and techniques you need to heal, grow, and address any mental health issues.

Types of Racial Trauma Therapy

When looking for a therapist that can help with racial trauma, consider finding a therapist who specializes in racial trauma or has experience working with diverse populations. Depending on your unique needs, there are several types of therapy approaches that can be effective in addressing racial trauma.

Cognitive Processing Therapy

This type of racial trauma therapy is one of the most frequently used therapeutic approaches for treating race-based trauma. It focuses on helping people understand and challenge their negative thoughts and beliefs that have stemmed from traumatic experiences. Through CPT, you can identify harmful beliefs that lead to self-blame and feelings of worthlessness. Through structured exercises and techniques, you can learn to reframe your thoughts, develop a healthier perspective, and cultivate a sense of empowerment in your life.

Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

EMDR is an evidence-based therapeutic method that is often used to help people heal from trauma and PTSD. It involves an eight-phase approach incorporating bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements, while targeting traumatic memories. The goal of this therapy is to help certain areas of the brain (including the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex) resolve unprocessed traumatic memories and resume natural healing.

Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

TF-CBT combines two techniques: cognitive behavioral therapy and trauma-focused therapy. By working with a therapist, you can challenge negative thoughts and replace them with more helpful and realistic ones, which is the core of cognitive behavioral therapy. TF-CBT also incorporates exposure therapy, which means gradually facing and processing memories or reminders of the traumatic event in a safe and supportive way. This therapy technique also teaches you coping techniques so you are better equipped to handle the negative effects of racial trauma.

Culturally-Centered Therapy

This therapy approach looks at the intersectionality of mental health and culture by acknowledging and incorporating cultural factors into the therapeutic process. For example, Black women are impacted much differently than Hispanic women by racism. And this therapy emphasizes the impact of racism and discrimination on mental health — and uses culturally sensitive techniques to explore racial identity and promote healing.

Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapy separates people from problems and empowers them to reshape their life stories. With this technique, your therapist will help you to share your story, challenge negative beliefs about yourself and the world around you, and to gain a sense of control over your experiences.

Group Therapy and Support Groups

Community and support can play a big role in your healing journey. By joining a support group, you can find a safe place where can share your experiences and connect with others who have also experienced racial trauma. Group therapy can help you become more comfortable talking about your trauma and can provide lifelong friendships and sources of support.

Empowering Healing and Growth After Racial Trauma

Racial trauma can leave a mark, affecting your emotional well-being, relationships, and overall quality of life. Although racism and discrimination can seem to affect every area of your life, it’s important to recognize the power of resilience and the potential for healing. You possess incredible strength and capacity to overcome adversity, and by seeking support, you can begin to unravel the complexities of racial trauma in your life, learn your true worth and value, and flourish.

Ready to begin your healing journey? Find an Ellie location near you and get started.