How to deal with stress caused by racism

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

Researchers have found that pandemic experiences of racial discrimination are associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression. That has certainly been true for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders over the past few years, who have suffered bigotry and racist attacks after President Donald Trump called the coronavirus the “Chinese virus.”

As an Asian therapist, I witnessed firsthand the impact of xenophobia and racism on my community. One client said they began to question whether moving to America was the right decision because they didn’t realize racism against Asians was so prevalent. Another spoke of the hours they would spend scrolling through videos of hate incidents, feeling angry, anxious and hopeless about the future and the potential for change. One customer even said they started carrying a pocket knife when going out in public.

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

I see more Asian clients in my practice, but the reality is that Asians tend not to seek mental health help. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that in 2019, 7 percent of Asian Americans sought mental health services, less than almost any other racial group. By comparison, 20 percent of non-Hispanic white adults and 10 percent of black and Hispanic adults seek psychiatric care.

Only 3.3 percent of psychologists are Asian, even though Asians make up 6.2 percent of the U.S. population. This has left some providers, myself included, overwhelmed by the volume of patient requests and unable to work with everyone who contacts us.

Despite these issues, it feels like a watershed moment. Many Asian people, young and old, are opening up to therapy as well as explicitly addressing the mental health effects of racism.

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

Shuyun David Lo, director of psychiatry at UC Santa Cruz Health Services, said he’s seen it, too. More Asian students are coming to address the anxiety they feel for their safety and that of their seniors, as attacks on Asian seniors are well documented by the media.

In her practice, Gancinia said that not only were young people “more vocal about their mental health needs, their parents were more responsive and took them more seriously.” And adults share that they’ve wanted to try therapy for a while and current events have been so stressful that they finally decided to look for it.

Every person of color in the United States has experienced some form of bigotry. Here are some of the things I tell my patients to help them cope with the stress of racism.

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 under the severe stress of discrimination. For example, one of my Asian patients was afraid of looking “too Asian” to their predominantly white community. They would accept being the target of racist jokes in order to fit in, not bring certain foods to school, and would go to their white friends’ houses instead of inviting them because they were embarrassed by what friends might to think about their family’s behavior.

As they began to accept themselves more fully and develop a stronger sense of ethnic identity, they felt less ashamed and afraid and more confident and assertive.

The power to reclaim my Asian name

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

As a psychology geek, I’m proud to admit that the popular concepts of mindfulness and acceptance have roots in Asian and Buddhist traditions that have been around for thousands of years. That’s right, we meditated before it was cool.

You don’t have to answer

Some of my clients, after experiencing an act of racism, criticize themselves for not reacting. One of my patients was called a racial slur and was shocked and speechless. Later, they were disappointed in themselves for allowing racism to go unchecked. They discussed feeling pressured to represent the entire Asian community at this time, especially in an effort to combat the stereotype that Asians are submissive and unassertive. Not saying anything felt deeply disappointing and shameful for them.


I understand why some, like my patient, feel they have to stand up to racism, but that puts an unfair burden on the victim. There are costs to both confrontation and non-confrontation with a perpetrator of racism. If we don’t confront the perpetrator, we may feel shame and guilt and ruminate. If we stand up to them, we may face social and labor consequences, or worse, threats and violence. Jeopardizing your safety is not healing.

Yue (Brian) Shi, a psychologist in Davis, California, was in a supermarket in the early days of the pandemic. A man stared at him in a way that made him feel marked and insecure. Shi then decided to shop online. Instead of blaming himself for not standing up to the threat, he acknowledges that he has resilience in finding alternative ways to deal with racism that don’t compromise his sense of safety.

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

Do not light yourself with gas

I remember walking my dog ​​and through my headphones I thought I heard someone yelling the lyrics to “Gangnam Style,” a South Korean song. I didn’t see anyone. At first I was confused, then angry. I even went back to the street on the way home to see if it would happen again.

I told my friends about it; some were also outraged, but others wondered if I had heard wrong. At first I was angry with those who questioned my experience. Later that night I found myself awake wondering if I had been acting foolishly.

Teaching Asian American history in its complexity can help fight racism

However, learning about the stress of racism helped me contextualize the situation. At such times, we are not reacting to just one act of racism – we are scarred by racism for a lifetime.

So don’t dispute what happened, but acknowledge the feelings that were evoked. I may have heard wrong, but my feelings of anger and hurt are still valid.

Self-compassion may buffer the effects of racial discrimination on depressive symptoms. Individuals may also use culturally specific variations of compassion exercises that are consistent with their cultural background, as this may 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 oneself and others. Regular practice can reduce anxiety, depression and stress and doesn’t take much time; you can try a seven-minute metta meditation here.

Seek out a BIPOC therapist

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

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

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

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

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