How to cope if you feel overwhelmed and helpless in the face of racism

How to cope if you feel overwhelmed and helpless in the face of racism

We are all currently facing a once-in-a-generation global pandemic – but black people are also dealing with a barrage of systemic racism, and it feels like an assault from every angle.

Not only are black people being disproportionately impacted by coronavirus – and dying at higher rates – (thanks in no small part to the effects of systemic racism), but they are also having to muster the energy to protest for justice around the world after the killing of yet another unarmed black man at the hands of the police.

It is a lot. Social media is a mess right now. We are being flooded with images of black trauma, while some scramble to find a ‘hot take’ and others are quick to dismiss our pain and declare that the UK is ‘not as bad’ as the US.

The demoralising thing is that we have been here before. Many, many times.

Systemic racial injustice is not a new phenomenon, nor is it a uniquely American problem – in fact, it has been a recurring and persistent feature of modern civilisation.

The burden of witnessing explicit racism and anti-blackness for decades, across multiple generations, is draining, relentless and can, understandably, leave people feeling utterly hopeless.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the fight for equality, or feeling helpless in the face of seemingly unconquerable injustice – know that you are not alone. And there are things you can do mitigate these emotions, and reinstate hope and empowerment.

The first thing to understand is that any emotions you are feeling right now – whether that’s anger, sadness or even feeling completely numb – are completely valid and normal.

Psychologist Dr Roberta Babb says that any reaction to a distressing and traumatising situation – one that has been going on for generations – is legitimate and should be given the space to breathe.

‘People may be feeling overwhelmed or helpless in the face of racism right now, as there is an overwhelming focus on it, and its association with police brutality and the victimisation of black people in society, the media and social media,’ Dr Roberta tells 

‘People may also be feeling helpless as this is not a new situation and protests have occurred before and with little change.’

She adds that coronavirus adds an additional, complicated dynamic to the situation – both in the ways the black community is being impacted by the pandemic, and the fact that it is depriving people of their usual support networks.

‘Coronavirus means the black community is not as connected as it may have been before, as lockdown and physical distancing has meant that people have not been able to get together and gain support from their social networks,’ she explains.

Dr Roberta says that recognising and acknowledging feelings of hopelessness are important steps towards feeling better.

‘It is important that you compassionately validate your emotional experience,’ she says. 

‘It is OK to feel the way you do in response to the violence and trauma and racial inequality we are seeing. 

‘We are going through a racial battle, and people may feel racial battle fatigue.  You feel a particular way because you care, are hurting and are angry.’ 

She adds that you may not be able to reduce the feelings as the racially violent situation continues in the US, but you may be able to bring down the intensity of the feelings by taking a break from social media and the news and limiting your exposure to the violence and trauma. 

‘In the 21st Century, information is communicated in raw and impactful ways,’ says Dr Roberta.

‘There are lots of graphic videos being posted, and emotionally painful stories being posted, which are distressing to watch or read without warning, and the available information about the issues is relentless and exhausting as it is always being added to. 

‘It is important to remember that taking a break from social media and the news is not ignoring what is going on, it is about protecting yourself, so you can return to the issues and engage with them in a meaningful way.’

Talking to someone about how you’re feeling may help, says Roberta. As well as engaging in self-care.

‘Self-care activities can focus your mind in the here-and-now and have a calming influence – such as mindfulness, reading a book you enjoy, watching a film, exercise or sleep.’

How to protect your mental health in the fight against racism

The fight for racial equality isn’t going to be over any time soon, so people who are personally impacted by racism need to develop strategies to cope with the psychological impact on a long-term basis.

Dr Roberta says that in times when you may feel out of control, it is important to think about and identify areas where you have control.

Recognise and attend to your emotions

Allow yourself to feel the way you do.

Be compassionate and look after yourself

Talk to yourself compassionately and acknowledge the challenges and the pain of the current situation.  

Think about how you want to engage in the fight against racism 

You may want to protest, but there are lots of different ways you can make a difference without putting yourself or others at harm – especially during a pandemic of a highly contagious infection.

You can educate yourself about the different aspects of racism and its history in a way that can feel connective and empowering. Understanding the issue from a historical point of view is important as well as from the point of view from contemporary authors who write on the topic of racism.

You can use social media to keep abreast of the issues and stay connected with people. However, it is important that you feel in control of your social media engagement, and not controlled by it.

You can take regular news and social media breaks.

Be mindful of the negative messages about racism and racial violence  

Think about ways you can challenge the negative messages which link to the positive aspects of being black and racial diversity.

You can speak to people you trust about racism and how it has, and impacting you.

Having your experience recognised and validated by another can help you feel stronger and more resilient.

Seek help

You can speak to a professional about racism and how it has, and is impacting you.

There are a range of black and asian therapists who specialist in intercultural therapy in the Black and Asian Therapy Network.

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