Understanding Racial Trauma and Restorative Healing/Self-Care Strategies

Racism and racial discrimination can negatively affect your physical and mental health. Regardless of your previous awareness, you may find yourself struggling to process your reactions to current and/or past experiences of racism and racial discrimination — reflecting an experience known as racial trauma. The following provides information on racial trauma and resources to foster resilience and healthy coping.

What is Racial Trauma?

Racial trauma is the emotional, psychological, and physical reaction People of Color experience as a result of exposure to ongoing or persistent acts of hate, bias, discrimination, or intolerance. Racial trauma can affect many aspects of a person’s life, including their ability to have relationships, concentrate on school or work, and feel safe.

Exposure may be either direct or indirect, including:

  • Experiencing racial discrimination, teasing, and/or harassment.

  • Viewing repeated images or viral videos of brutality directed toward your racial community (vicarious trauma).

  • Witnessing the people close to you or from your racial community be affected by racism.

  • Being made aware of and/or reminded of the longstanding history and influence of racism directed toward your racial community in the US and world.

Racism and discrimination experiences do not exist in isolation. Racial trauma builds over time as a person experiences large and small racial events. Every encounter with racism and/or racial discrimination that happens to you or that you witness or read about contributes to additional chronic stress.

Why is it important to learn about Racial Trauma?

Acknowledgment and validation that racial trauma is a real thing plays a critical role in moving toward restoration and healing. As a Person of Color, you may find yourself having a very difficult time feeling calm, feeling safe, feeling empowered when you are reminded of the racial injustices in our world. Knowing that you are not alone and that this reaction is warranted and normal can help. There is not a “right” way of processing or reacting to racial trauma. But, the first step is recognizing it and learning about it.

Signs of Racial Trauma

Racial trauma can be experienced in our bodies and minds in many ways. Some symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Hypervigilance and increased arousal
  • Re-experiencing thoughts, feelings, and/or images related to racial incidents
  • Headaches
  • Memory loss
  • Self-blame or self-hate
  • Insomnia
  • Body aches
  • Guilt and shame
  • Confusion

The more often you experience acts of racism, the more profound these symptoms can be.

How to Cope

It can be difficult to know where to begin when you are experiencing racial trauma. Here are some suggestions:

  • Acknowledge the impact of racial trauma.
  • Discuss your experiences with those you trust.
  • Seek support (e.g. community, counseling, spiritual or religious guidance).
  • Self-Care: Engage in activities that bring pleasure and promote healthy lifestyle.
  • Empowerment through Resistance: Speak up and engage in community service or activism.

We understand that you are the expert on your own experience and know your needs better than anyone. At Hawkeye, you are not alone. If you need a confidential space to sort out what is happening to you, make an appointment and come talk to our counselor in our Student Health Clinic. This service is a wonderful free resource.

Feel free to also share your thoughts and feelings with your advisor or academic/college success advisor in Student Services.

Additionally, here are some tips that we hope you will find helpful:

Self-Care: Recovery Plan Steps

The following Racism Recovery Plan Steps [pdf] were created by the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture All Rights Reserved.

Racial Wellness Toolbox

Describe what you are like when you are managing and responding to racism and racial trauma in a healthy manner.

Daily Maintenance of Centeredness

List connections or tools that help you maintain your centeredness in the face of racism. Such items include, but are not limited to:

  • Resources on racial identity and racial trauma.
  • Connect with friends who are equally or better able to engage in conversations about racial awareness.
  • Engage in prayer, spiritual practices , or use of mantras.
  • Engage in activism.
  • Practice self-management (i.e. healthy eating, exercise, and favorite activities that help you feel centered).

Triggers and Response Plan

List items or experiences that tend to result in racial trauma symptoms (e.g. anger, isolation, sadness). After each item or experience, identify a specific centeredness response (e.g. calling a friend, writing in your journal, activism).

Early Warning Signs and Response Plan

List early warning signs that you are experiencing racial trauma (e.g. body aches, fatigue, anxiety, depression, difficulty sleeping) and related ways of coping from your Daily Maintenance of Centeredness coping skills list.

Acute Racial Trauma Response Plan

List signs that you are experiencing acute racial trauma (e.g. hypervigilance; heightened emotional experiences, such as depression, anxiety, and anger, which compromise your ability to engage in chosen activities of work, sleep, or school). Identify an action plan for each item on your list.

Crisis Planning

Ask yourself how you would know if you were experiencing a crisis due to racism (e.g. thoughts of harm to others/or self; inability to care for self and/or others; acute racial trauma symptoms that last longer than a specified duration). List a person(s) or additional resources to contact in the event you experience such a crisis.

Post Crisis Planning

List ways of reconnecting with yourself and your communities to regain centeredness in the face of racism and racial trauma.


Resources for Faculty

Understanding Racial Trauma

Restorative Healing for Racial Trauma

Police Brutality and Racial Trauma

Anti-Racism and Allyship

Contact Information

Diversity and Inclusion


Rhonda McRina
Hawkeye Center 232
Email Rhonda McRina

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