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Coping with racial trauma: How people of color can heal from racism

For DarNesha Weary, one way of coping with her racial trauma came in the form of a coffee shop, where she was comfortable in her own shoes.

SHORELINE, Wash. — We are dealing with a lot of stress these days. For many, the country's new reckoning with racism is taking a toll on their mental health. 

"I began to get quiet first, and so I began to get silenced and I stopped talking," said DarNesha Weary. "I begin to withdraw and that's not me at all." 

Over the last few months Weary started noticing a shift in her personality. Even as she seemed busy and driven, protesting for racial justice and opening up a new business, she realized she was living a muted version of herself. She was suffering from racism. 

"I was experiencing some serious racism, overt racism in the workplace. I received some pretty nasty emails with monkeys in them. I was called some pretty nasty names," said Weary. 

Weary worked at what she described as a white non-profit, where racist emails intensified. She says it became too much to bear. 

"I ended up having a cardiac episode and had to be rushed to the hospital," said Weary. "They thought I was having a heart attack. I went through all these tests, right, and then it came down to...it was stress-related. I didn't realize that this pandemic and this racial uprising was affecting me in such a way."

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What Weary is talking about is racial trauma. It has a scientific name: race-based traumatic stress, or RBTS. According to Mental Health America, it's a mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias, ethnic discrimination, racism and hate crimes. 

"It's unique in the fact that with racial trauma, it's constantly happening. It's ongoing, whereas with PTSD, typically, it's a singular event," said Ashley McGirt, a mental health therapist who specializes in racial trauma. 

It's a concept scientists have studied for more than 20 years but is now gaining more attention. 

"We know that it exists by the way that Black and Brown bodies respond," said McGirt. "Currently Black and Brown bodies are experiencing chronic stress-related illnesses at disproportionate rates. We are dying at disproportionate rates, and we can attribute that a lot to racism. Because you know, we have more strokes, high blood pressure, chronic heart failure, a lot of these things that are attributed to stress."

WATCH: Full episodes of Facing Race

Experts say RBTS can be traced down through generations. Weary has seen that firsthand.  

"If you think back to when Black people were enslaved, Black women were taking care of the slave masters, children, breastfeeding them, they were doing all sorts of things to take care of the whole community. Can you imagine how significant of an amount of stress that can be?" said Dr. Katrina Sanford, a Seattle-based psychologist.

Sanford says one of the keys to coping with racial trauma is understanding your ancestral connection. 

 "If you don't know where your people come from – and that's one of the things that's a part of health is being able to know yourself – and when you know yourself and you know you're the bomb and you know you're amazing regardless of what society tells you, then that helps your health outcomes improve," said Sanford. "It helps you physically be more healthy. It helps you mentally be more healthy, and it helps you spiritually be more healthy." 

Sanford founded the healing center Niles Edge to help people connect to themselves using therapies like breathing exercises, sound and talk therapy and meditation. 

"Niles Edge is trying to ensure that our people can now understand who they are, how their ancestors healed and figure out ways to heal themselves so that we can continue to live in this society that oppresses us, but so that not just live in it, thrive and find joy in who we are even though things are really difficult," said Sanford.

Weary's new business venture was part of her healing process. A new coffee shop, Black Coffee Northwest, would provide her a comfortable safe space. 

"We kept looking for a space and a place to just be with our Black community in an area where...it's pretty much White all around, and we can never find a place," said Weary. 

Since Weary and her husband couldn't find that space, they created one. 

"Being a Black person here in Black Coffee, I'm allowed to be unapologetically Black," said Weary. "I don't have to code switch, I don't have to worry about if I'm too loud, I speak with my hands, I don't have to worry about controlling that or controlling my facial figures. These are things that I know that I have done throughout my life in the workplace, in my community, just to be safe, because I live in an all White space."

So how can we, as a society, be part of the solution?

Mental health experts say it begins with acknowledging this trauma exists and then finding empathy. 

"I want our businesses to understand that if someone needs a mental health break, that that's okay, that the environment, not just in businesses, but in our society as a whole allows for people to take that time that they need, because you can't have someone...at your job be able to do their job well and be productive if they're unhealthy, if they're unhappy, and if their mental health is struggling," said Sanford.  

Back to Weary's coffee shop, the safe space she's created. She hopes all people of color realize it's normal to struggle, but in order to heal, you've got to focus on caring for yourself. 

"The joy, I can't even explain. I've learned I have balance in my life right now," Weary said. "And things are not always perfect. But I know how to say no. I learn how to set boundaries. I take care of myself. I put it in my calendar to turn things off or to take a walk or to do something for myself. And so it's just so important for Black women, because we're carrying so much every single day. We're carrying so many things we don't even realize we're carrying."

This story was produced as part of “Facing Race,” a KING 5 series that examines racism, social justice and racial inequality in the Pacific Northwest. Tune in to KING 5 on Sundays at 9:30 p.m. to watch live and catch up on our coverage here.

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