Coping with the ‘secondary traumatic stress’ of being Black

jegna_brandon_jonesIt is no secret that we have had a significantly stressful year. Several celebrities have passed away, and hundreds of people have been murdered or harmed as well. We have also seen several incidents of government-sanctioned murders of countless Black people.

One of the most recent cases happening here in Minnesota is the death of Philando Castile.  Mr. Castile’s death has left many of the people I know in a state of fear, frustration and hopelessness. Many witnessed the aftermath of his death via Facebook live stream. I believe the viewing of his murder took the degree of shock to a new level for many people.

(Stock photo)

As Black people, we live in a constant state of stress and anxiety due to our oppressive social position. Some of us choose not to be honest about this fact. However, we as a people collectively are subject to a significant degree of trauma from outside as well as within our group.

The videotaping of these deaths is just a modernized method for us to view our pain and misfortune. The emotional toll that we are subject to on a daily basis is harmful to our identity and culture as a people. This exposure can have traumatic impacts similar to someone who has experienced such events in real time. This type of impact is referred to as “secondary trauma.”

Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. Individuals affected by secondary trauma may find themselves re-experiencing personal trauma(s) or notice an increase in arousal and avoidance reactions related to the indirect trauma exposure.

One may also experience changes in memory and perception; alterations in one’s sense of self-efficacy; a depletion of personal resources; and disruption in one’s perceptions of safety, trust, and independence.

A few other terms and concepts that are closely associated with secondary trauma are burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma. All of these terms highlight the sensitive nature of being immersed within a toxic stress environment.

Sadly, these terms (as well as secondary trauma) have generally been associated with professionals who work with “high risk” populations, negating the people who live within such vulnerable environments. However, it is not uncommon for people (perhaps like you) who continue to view videos, articles, headlines, tweets, and hashtags of dead and violated Black people to display the same symptoms.

In the past few years, we have been infiltrated with hashtagged names of Black people who have been unjustly killed. From seven-year-old Ayianna Jones to 43-year-old Eric Gardner, the pain has continued. When we consume these stories it becomes heartbreaking.

Therefore, when we actually see these killings take place on video we are internalizing this trauma on another level. When these deaths become headline topics, the traumatic experience is maintained and can sometimes be enhanced.

We not only have sympathy for the families and friends of the victims, we also feel the hurt and pain as if it were us. Accordingly, this may be due to the fact that in this world the probability of it actually being us is high, and this is a traumatic reality also.

A few methods to cope with these added stressors in our lives are: exercise, spending “specialized” time with loved ones, taking “personal” time for yourself, “unplugging” from social media for 24 hours, and appreciating your time here. These are not foolproof solutions. However, they are helpful resources that we often forget to draw on because of the busy, task-oriented lives we live.

Your time on this earth is precious, and you should treat it as such. We do not know when the injustices against Black people in this world will end. However, it is important that we make the most of our time combating it and find ways to still enjoy life as much as possible.


Brandon Jones M.A. is a mental health practitioner. He welcomes reader responses to or follow him on twitter @UniversalJones.