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How Racial Trauma Affects Your Mental Health, and Tips for Coping as We Return to ‘Normal'

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Returning to "normal" life amid Covid, like going back to the office or school, will not be business as usual.

In addition to living through a pandemic that has killed more than 570,000 people in the United States, Black, Indigenous and people of color have experienced immense racial trauma in the past year, from the murder of George Floyd exactly one year ago on May 25, 2020, to the Atlanta spa shooting in March.

Racial trauma, or race-based traumatic stress, refers to "any kind of a mental or emotional injury that can be caused by encounters with racial bias, ethnic discrimination, racism and hate crimes," Wizdom Powell, director of the University of Connecticut's Health Disparities Institute, tells CNBC Make It.

Of course, racial profiling, racism, oppression and violence that happens to people directly is harmful. But things like bearing witness to the death or murder of people of color on the internet and social media can also trigger a trauma reaction response.

Simply "existing in an environment that they perceive to be racially hostile" can be traumatizing for some, says Will Ming Liu, professor of counseling psychology at the University of Maryland, whose research includes white supremacy and white privilege.

Work places and colleagues "have to ready themselves to receive individuals who have had months of prolonged physical and social distancing and who have all been bearing witness, not just to an uptick in racialized violence, but who experience losses perhaps in their families, due to Covid-19," Powell says.

Here are some tips from trauma experts about how to cope with racial trauma as you return to life and work.

Know the symptoms

Racial trauma manifests in some of the same ways as other forms of trauma. People who experience race-based trauma may experience: hyper vigilance, increased depressive symptoms, prolonged anger and outbursts, recurring thoughts of the events, as well as physical reactions like headaches, chest pains and insomnia, Powell says.

Physiologically, your body responds to racism as chronic stress, which in turn can lead to a number of health issues, Liu says. "For BIPOC individuals, this has been a lifelong experience of retraumatization," he says. "It's always something that they've learned to cope with and built up over time."

Exercise your rights

It's up to organizations to acknowledge and hold space for individuals who have experienced racial trauma and are returning to the workplace.

"Denial of racism can be re-traumatizing," Powell says. "If workplace environments are treating this issue as if it's not the elephant in the room, that silence equals violence and complicity."

There are tangible things that employers can do to address racial trauma: For example, organizations can provide increased access to employee assistance programs (voluntary, free workplace-based programs that provide counseling and other support), and make sure that people know they're available, Powell says.

For employees who are not in a leadership position: "Don't wait until you reach a fever pitch before you seek support," Powell says. "Exercise all your rights [as an employee] and channels within your organization to get support, because the organization should be serving you just as much as you serve them daily in your work and contributions to their bottom line."

It's important for leaders at any level to demonstrate having conversations about what can be done to make a company or job a better, more inviting and supportive place for people, Liu says. "Having those conversations that lead to some kind of practical outcome, no matter how small, is important," he says.

Find a confidant

Figure out who in your organization can be a confidant, or person for you to confide in or seek support from, Powell says. That could be your HR department, or anyone else who will provide a "safe brain space to actually discuss what's going on with you and to get some advice about how to negotiate the workplace environment," she says.

Being in groups of people who you trust and have established relationships with, who are supportive and elevating, helps mitigate the "constant assault" of stress that racism causes, Liu says.

Request flexibility

Research has shown that people who have job control, flexibility and more job autonomy are less likely to experience depressive symptoms in the face of discriminatory or inequitable workplace environments, Powell says.

Reentering the workplace is going to be "quite a feat," so think about what you need in order to feel your best at work, Powell says. For example, will your workplace allow people to work remotely?

Racism is associated with several mental health consequences, such as depression, anxiety and substance use disorders, according to the American Psychological Association. "The things that people of color experience, they hold it in their bodies," Liu says.

So make time for self-care in your schedule, even if that means taking a day off. "It's okay to use your sick time or other time off to actually recalibrate," Powell says. Workplaces should consider providing or normalizing mental health days, she says.

Advice for allies: 'Pass the mic'

What can people do to be allies for their BIPOC peers? Acknowledge and listen to BIPOC individuals when they are ready to talk, Liu says. "Don't expect that people will talk about it, because talking about it is also very traumatizing," he says.

Look for opportunities to elevate and "pass the mic to folks of color so that they can speak," he says.

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