Trauma

Tender, Loving Self-Care for Asian Americans

A guide for tending to the traumas of anti-Asian violence and racism.

Posted Mar 21, 2021 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader

  • A surge of violence against Asian Americans has created fresh trauma and can bring back past traumas for members of the community.
  • Self-care methods include honoring your emotions, connecting with your support system, using your voice, and helping to create and restore safety.
  • When self-care methods are not sufficient for addressing trauma, a therapist can provide personalized counsel and care.
 Clay Bank/Unsplash
Source: Clay Bank/Unsplash

Living in the United States of America forces many people of color (POC) to develop expertise on managing complex collective trauma in order to simply function in our everyday lives and carry out family, work, or school responsibilities. It’s impossible for a person of color to live in this country without being otherized, dehumanized, stereotyped, bullied, and even attacked because of our non-white appearance. 

My experiences of race-based trauma started when I was a very young child in the '80s growing up in an environment filled with anti-Asian racism and anti-refugee/anti-immigrant xenophobia. Today, those childhood experiences function a bit like a vaccine for dealing with this current resurgence in anti-Asian verbal and physical violence. However, they are also a source of deeply buried pain and anguish. It’s like very old wounds with thick scar tissue are being reopened and getting salt poured on them. The fresh traumas bring these past traumas back to the surface, calling attention to the multiple layers and layers of me (and the Asian American community) that cry out for healing.

I’ve spent years exploring and mining neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy, as well as contemplative traditions such as yoga, Buddhism, and mindfulness for techniques and tools to heal these wounds. In case it is helpful to others, I’d like to share eight techniques that I am using to practice self-care and resilience during these challenging times.  

I am presenting these techniques in a way that is tailored for the collective traumas that Asian Americans are experiencing right now. That said, they can be adapted to support healing collective traumas experienced by various communities of color and other manifestations of PTSD

 Le Minh Phuong/Unsplash
Source: Le Minh Phuong/Unsplash

1. Acknowledge and honor your body’s reactions 

Practice a body scanning exercise to tune in to and ground yourself in the physiological sensations of being in your body in this present moment. I usually start scanning from my toes and feet, and go up part by part until I reach the top of my head, but it can also be done in the other direction. This exercise will activate the neural networks tied to sensory receptors throughout your skin and skeletal motor system as well as activate the parasympathetic nervous system to calm the stress response.   

As you scan your body part by part, be aware of:

  • Muscular sensations such as tightness and tension or openness and ease
  • Temperature-related sensations such heat, warmth, coolness, chills  
  • Pulse- and heart rate-related sensations which you may feel as pulsations and vibrations 
  • Energy-related sensations such as feeling tired, drained, sluggish, heavy, or restless and anxious 
  • Nausea-related sensations such as dizziness, disorientation, an urge to vomit, etc.
  • Pain-related sensations such as a head-ache or psychosomatic sensations of injury like being punched in the stomach, feeling tied up, difficulty breathing, etc.

Whatever sensations you feel in your body, tell your body it’s OK to feel whatever it feels and that you can honor whatever your body needs to do to process and work through the trauma. Be aware if a part of your mind has an urge to judge or reject the sensations and tell that urge you can be present with the sensation and the urge, and allow time and space for the urge to pass. 

2. Acknowledge and honor your emotions and feelings

Visualize yourself sitting in a circle with your emotions and feelings as honored guests. Name as many of the emotions you are feeling as you can, and welcome each of them to sit in this circle with you. 

For example: Ask your grief to come take a seat with you in this circle. Ask your anger to come take a seat in this circle. Ask your despair to sit with you. Ask your resentment to sit with you. Ask your irritability to sit with you. Ask your shame to sit with you. Ask your weakness to sit with you. Ask your fear to sit with you. Ask your anxiety to sit with you. Ask your insecurity to sit with you. Ask your exhaustion to sit with you, and so forth. 

It might help to draw a large circle on a piece of paper and write down along this circle all the emotions and feelings that arise within you. 

As you become unable to name any more emotions and feelings, ask your circle: "Are any emotions or feelings still waiting to be acknowledged and welcomed?" Wait to see if any more come to consciousness. 

Allow yourself to sit in communion for a few minutes with all the emotions and feelings you have named. 

Next, identify the three to five strongest emotions you are feeling (circle them on the paper) and welcome a conversation with them. One by one, say to each: “I honor you and give myself permission to feel you and to listen to what message you want to tell me. Is there anything you want to tell me?” Then sit in a moment of silence with each one to give it space to talk to you.     

When I do this exercise, I get messages like these: My anger tells me it’s here to motivate me to address what is wrong in our society, to commit to the hard work of anti-racism and social change. My exhaustion tells me that I keep trying to be superhuman and not taking enough time for my body and mind to rest and recover. My insecurity tells me that it is a reminder or alert that I need to give myself more love and compassion, that I’m pushing myself hard or being too hard on myself to achieve something and making that outcome more important than my own well-being. 

You may get very different messages from your emotions and feelings. It’s important to make time to listen to what they want to tell you.

3. Acknowledge and honor your internalized narratives

In response to trauma, your mind may internalize narratives about the world and your place in it that play like broken records in your mind to keep you safe and avoid danger. Such narratives could sound like this: “I’m not safe,” “Don’t stick out,” “I can’t be myself,” and “Don’t be a target,” “I can’t trust anyone,” “Don’t show weakness,” etc. 

On a piece of paper, write down the narratives that your mind says to you like a broken record. Pick the “loudest” narrative and tell the part of your mind that created it how it makes you feel to listen to the narrative, and how following this narrative would limit your ability to live a full life, to thrive, and to experience joy. 

Ask that part of your mind: “Is that trade-off worth it? How can we update this narrative so it doesn’t limit my ability to live a full life?” 

Listen to how that part of your mind responds.  

4. Slow down, rest, and rejuvenate  

When the human body experiences a prolonged extreme freeze-flight-fight reaction, this consumes a lot of energy. The body needs downtime and self-care to recover and return to homeostasis. This is a time to go easy on yourself. 

If possible, reschedule meetings and deadlines to give yourself more space for self-care. 

For me, spending time in nature hiking has a powerful restorative effect on my mind and body. So I block out time for that on my calendar as a priority. 

In addition, try to eat fresh fruits and vegetables to help nourish your body’s recovery. 

5. Connect with your loved ones and social support system

Traumatic experiences may prompt people to instinctively withdraw from society to protect themselves. However, if this instinct is taken to an extreme, prolonged isolation can also exacerbate mental health. 

Once you have given yourself the time you need to be alone for self-care, when you have the energy to do so, reach out to your loved ones and friends who may be going through a similar experience. It is important to remind each other that none of you are alone because this is a shared experience.

If you would like advice or support, tell your social support network (your family, friends, and mentors) what’s going on and what advice or support you are looking for. You may also want to share what you are not looking for to further guide people.   

In addition, Asian American organizations and networks may be organizing events and resources to support the Asian American community at this time. Look for ways you can participate and contribute to help strengthen your sense of being in community and to be part of a larger collective healing process.

6. Reclaim your culture and heritage 

Experiences of racism and xenophobia can prompt people to internalize oppression by rejecting and disowning aspects of their identity, culture, and heritage that become associated with the traumatic experience and feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, pain, and suffering.  

This self-rejection and self-disowning becomes a form of dissociation, internal disconnection, and fragmentation. Over time, the dissociation can actually manifest as impaired functioning in various neural networks across the brain and extended nervous system, which can develop into difficulty feeling joy or pleasure, and a sense of being lost to oneself. furthermore, this neurological dissociation can hinder people from being able to feel a sense of wholeness, integrity, and completeness

Therefore, it is important to pre-emptively counteract the internalization of oppression and self-rejection by proactively reclaiming and celebrating your identity, culture, and heritage. There are many ways to do this. 

For Asian Americans, this can include listening to music by your favorite Asian/Asian American artists, watching movies and shows featuring Asian/Asian American culture, and watching Asian American comedians find humor in the challenges experienced by Asian Americans. It could involve appreciating or learning traditional dances, arts, and crafts. Another exercise could involve making a list of things you like about your identity, culture and heritage that you want to pass on to your children.

Please explore what activities energize and inspire you to feel a stronger connection with your identity, culture, and heritage.

7. Use your power and voice 

Post-traumatic stress disorder is often tied to a “freeze” response in which feelings of being utterly powerless and helpless get “frozen” into the body and mind. Overtime, this could develop into a generalized pervasive feeling of helplessness and paralysis. 

It is important to counteract this freeze response by seeing and discerning ways you have power both internally in proactively practicing self-care to restore your body to homeostasis (using the methods above) and externally in how you use your voice to express yourself and to influence your environment. 

You can simply use your voice to talk in private about what you are experiencing with loved ones and friends. Writing can also be a powerful tool to express yourself and capture your thoughts, whether or not you decide to publicly share your writing. 

If you feel compelled to do so, you can also choose to use your voice in public (including social media platforms) to give voice to what is happening, to participate in a larger dialogue, and to advocate to stop anti-Asian violence and hate.

8. Help create and restore safety  

Take a moment to reflect on and answer the three questions below: 

  1. What does safety mean to me? 
  2. What would it take to feel safe again? 
  3. What things could help me feel safer than I feel right now? 

For the last question, classify what you put on the list of things that could make you feel safer into three categories:

  • Things I or my family can put in place
  • Things I can ask people I know to help to put in place 
  • Things that require building a larger coalition to put in place 

Depending on what you are feeling motivated to do, how much time, energy, and resources are required, and what outcomes each thing would achieve, choose a short list of things you feel makes the most sense to focus your time and energy on. Revisit this short list as appropriate from time to time as your circumstances evolve. 

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Please keep in mind, these eight techniques are simply a starting point. There are many more ways to practice tender, loving self-care and tend to trauma. If you already have methods that work for you, please use them. In addition, these methods may not be sufficient. Please consider seeking out a licensed therapist or psychologist to get more personalized and professional counsel and care. 

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.