How to cope with racism-induced stress

Jason Wu, PhD, is a psychologist in private practice in the Bay Area.

Researchers have found that pandemic experiences of racial discrimination were associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression. This was certainly true of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in recent years, who have endured bigotry and racist attacks after President Donald Trump dubbed the coronavirus the “Chinese virus.”

As an Asian therapist, I have witnessed firsthand the impact xenophobia and racism have had on my community. One client said he began to question whether moving to America was the right decision, not realizing that racism towards Asians was so widespread. Another spoke about the hours they spent scrolling through videos of hate incidents, feeling angry, afraid and hopeless about the future and the potential for change. One client even said he started carrying a pocket knife when going out in public.

Before the pandemic, about 20 percent of my clients were people with Asian identities. Now it’s closer to 60 percent. Bango Gancinia, a psychologist in Utah, said he has more such individuals who come to therapy and have higher levels of stress than his other clients.

I see more Asian clients in my practice, but the reality is that Asians tend not to seek psychological help. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that 7 percent of Asian Americans used mental health services in 2019, fewer than for almost any other racial group. This compares to 20 percent of non-Hispanic white adults and 10 percent of black and Hispanic adults seeking mental health care.

Only 3.3 percent of psychologists are Asian, even though Asians make up 6.2 percent of the US population. This has resulted in some providers, including myself, being overwhelmed by the large volume of patient inquiries and unable to work with everyone who contacts us.

Despite these issues, it feels like a turning point. Many Asian people, young and old, open up to therapies and explicitly address the psychological consequences of racism.

The long, ugly history of anti-Asian racism and violence in the United States

Shuyun David Lo, director of psychiatry at the University of California, Santa Cruz Health Services, said he saw it too. More and more Asian students are coming in to address their fears for their safety and that of their elders as attacks on Asian elders have been well documented by the media.

In his practice, Gancinia said that not only have young people “spoken louder about their mental health needs, their parents have been more responsive and take them more seriously.” And adults have shared that they’ve wanted to try therapy for some time and that recent events have been so distressing that they finally made the decision to look for it.

Every black person in the United States has experienced some form of bigotry. Here are some of the things I say to my patients to help them deal with racism-related stress.

Be proud of who you are and where you come from – it’s good for your mental health. Developing positive feelings about your ethnic group, learning about your cultural heritage and history, and feeling secure in your ethnic identity can protect your self-esteem even when discrimination stress is high. For example, one of my Asian patients worried about appearing “too Asian” for his predominantly white community. They accepted being the victim of racist jokes to conform, did not bring certain foods to school, and went to their white friends’ homes rather than invite them as they were embarrassed by what the friends thought of their family’s behavior could.

Once they began to embrace themselves more fully and develop a stronger sense of ethnic identity, they felt less ashamed and anxious and more confident and confident.

The power to reclaim my Asian name

Cultivating a secure sense of ethnic identity can include reading about Asian history, volunteering in advocacy groups, destigmatizing therapy in your community through talking about mental health, or even binge-watching Asian movies.

As a psychology nerd, I’m proud to recognize that the popular concepts of mindfulness and acceptance have their roots in Asian and Buddhist traditions that have existed for thousands of years. Right, we meditated before it was cool.

You don’t have to answer

Some of my clients criticize themselves for not responding after witnessing a racist act. One of my patients was called a racial slur and was silenced in shock. They later became frustrated with themselves for allowing racism to run unchecked. They spoke of feeling pressured at that moment to represent the entire Asian community, particularly in an effort to challenge the stereotype that Asians are subservient and unassertive. Not saying something felt deeply disappointing and embarrassing to her.

I understand why some, like my patient, feel that racism should be combated, but this places an unfair burden on the victim. There are costs associated with both confronting and not confronting a racist offender. If we don’t confront the abuser, we may feel ashamed, guilty, and brooding excessively. If we confront them, we may face social and employment repercussions, or worse, threats and violence. Compromising your safety is not a cure.

Yue (Brian) Shi, a psychologist in Davis, California, was at a grocery store in the early days of the pandemic. A person was staring at him in a way that made him feel purposeful and uncertain. Shi then decided to shop online. Rather than berating himself for not facing up to the threat, he recognized that there was resilience to find alternative ways of dealing with racism that didn’t compromise his sense of security.

When responding to racism, choose what feels right for you.

Don’t gaslight you

I remember walking my dog ​​and thinking through my headphones I heard someone shouting the lyrics to “Gangnam Style,” a South Korean song. I have not seen anyone. At first I was confused, then angry. I even came back to the street on the way home to see if it would happen again.

I told my friends about it; some were similarly outraged, but others asked if I misheard. Initially, I was angry with those who questioned my experience. Later that night I lay awake wondering if I was acting stupid.

Teaching Asian American history in all its complexity can help combat racism

However, learning about racism-related stress has helped me to contextualize the situation. At such moments, we don’t just respond to a single act of racism—we endure a lifetime of being hurt by racism.

So don’t judge what happened, but acknowledge the feelings that were triggered. I may have misheard, but my feelings of anger and pain are still valid.

Self-compassion can cushion the impact of racial discrimination on depressive symptoms. Individuals can also use culture-specific variations of compassion exercises that suit their cultural background, as this can increase the effectiveness of the exercises.

One example is the Buddhist practice of metta meditation, often translated as “loving kindness,” which focuses on cultivating feelings of compassion and love for ourselves and others. Regular practice can reduce anxiety, depression and stress and does not require much time; You can try a seven-minute metta meditation here.

See a BIPOC therapist

Research shows that mental health services tailored to culturally specific needs can significantly improve treatment outcomes. Interventions that target specific cultural groups are four times more effective than non-culture-specific interventions, while interventions delivered in the client’s native language are twice as effective as interventions delivered in English.

There are even Asian therapist directories to help clients find therapists who understand their culture and fundraisers to support Asian people becoming mental health professionals.

Finally, remember that change happens slowly and across generations. Most importantly, Asian therapists and clients are now ready to talk, so let’s keep the conversation going.

We welcome your comments on this column below [email protected].

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