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Mullen-Johnson: How to Cope with Race-Based Traumatic Stress

By Crystal Mullen-Johnson

Since being elected President, Joe Biden has reminded us that “he seeks not to divide but to reunify” which is significant progress from the racial tension under the previous administration of President Donald J. Trump, which divided the country.

Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris’s first 100-day agenda inspires to change race relations and restore trust in Black America.

The effects of systemic racism, social injustice, oppression, voter suppression and police brutality have impacted many Black Americans’ mental health. The trauma witnessed and experienced is very personal, traumatic, and unforgettable. Many Black parents are fearful and stressed about raising their children in a divided country where Black lives are devalued.

African American’s direct or indirect experience of racism and discrimination can cause Race-Based Traumatic Stress (RBTS). It can come in the forms of race-based harassment, discrimination, race-based social exclusion or race-based injustice.

According to Psychiatric Times, “In 2001, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report about the status of mental health with respect to racial and ethnic minority groups, which stated that ethnic and racial disparities were likely due to racism and discrimination. For trauma to be present, the reactions need to be associated with symptoms of intrusion, avoidance, and arousal.”

The exposures of racial trauma can onset behavioral and emotional symptoms of any of the following: sadness, hopelessness, fear, low self-confidence avoidance, hypervigilance, anger, emotional dysregulation, and stress. It can be emotionally and psychologically stressful when encountering racism and discrimination for people of color irrespective of age or socioeconomic status. Understanding the concept of RBTS is vital to coping with it.

Coping skills to address RBTS regardless of form:


  • Acknowledge the effects of trauma 
  • Limit your expose to racism and oppression by disconnecting from social media and the news
  • Talk with a mental health professional 
  • Celebrate your cultural norms and ideals
  • Disengaged when you are triggered and remove yourself from the environment by taking a time out 
  • Join a healthy cause and use your voice by being involved in social action and change 
  • Develop boundaries with people that don’t respect you and teach your kids these boundaries 
  • Recognize negative thoughts about yourself and replace these negative thoughts with positive thoughts 
  • Stop comparing yourself to others and realize your worth 
  • Teach your child about their culture and help them nurture their self-confidence 
  • Manage your emotions and teach your kids to regulate their emotions if they face racism; 
  • Use daily affirmations and mantras to manage your self-confidence.


While we may feel that we are in survival mode and running on empty, there is hope. Employ the suggested coping skills to become a better you. Let’s strive together for social justice and equality for all. Labor Leader Bill Haywood stated, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” 


Crystal Mullen-Johnson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Registered Play Therapist in Birmingham, AL with more than 16 years of experience in providing counseling. Strive Counseling Services is a private practice located in downtown Birmingham that offers therapeutic mental health services to children (play therapy), adolescents, and adults. Strive offers evidence-based therapeutic modalities such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Contact us at (205) 721-9893 to inquire about Telehealth Services.