Anger is a complex emotion. For some, it manifests as a quiet brooding, and for others it can present as explosive and uncontained. It can show up in various ways, physiologically and psychologically, and it can be interpreted differently based on the characteristics of the person expressing it.

The term “protest psychosis” [1] was coined by psychiatrists in the 1960s and used in psychiatric literature. This “syndrome” was invented to explain away the reasonable rage of Black Americans who were demanding an end to segregation. This effort to pathologize those participating in civil rights protests is one of the many ways that anger can be (mis)interpreted based on the characteristics of the person expressing it.

However anger is presenting in your life right now, I hope that you honor where you are and know that your feelings are perfectly acceptable and fully justified.

We are currently facing a unique time in modern history. No matter your race, age, gender, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation, you are likely experiencing some degree of anger. You may be feeling angry about losing your job due to COVID-19 or, like me, you may be outraged by the recent murders of innocent Black people and the blatant disregard for Black lives. 

Ahmaud Arbery.

Breonna Taylor.

George Floyd.

And countless other before.

While unjust murders of Black people is by no means a new phenomenon in this country, the recent events have certainly sparked a new level of anger in our nation. Many have speculated that the recent instances of police brutality have been particularly infuriating given the backdrop of COVID-19, and the upcoming presidential election.

The combination of health stressors, political unrest, and race-based violence has created the “perfect storm” for protests, as some scholars have purported.

Currently, we are seeing riots and protests in all 50 states, as well as on a global scale. Although the catalyst for these riots is heart-wrenching, it is inspiring to see the ways that anger is being channeled into action in so many communities.

We see this anger channeled into the movement to support Black-owned businesses and a renewed commitment to seeing communities of color thrive. June happens to be African American Music Appreciation Month, and we are seeing anger channeled into creative expression and a subsequent increase in socially conscious music.

While there are certainly many ways that anger is being used to fuel action and combat racism and social inequality, we sometimes fail to acknowledge that the fight for justice can be exhausting. It affects us psychologically and physically by increasing stress, raising our heart rates and blood pressure, causing muscle tension, migraines, sleeplessness, feelings of sadness, outrage, fear, numbness, fatigue, and hopelessness.

Today more than ever, fighting for justice and advocating for your community is vital. What’s equally important is tending to your emotional health and ensuring you have the mental capacity to show up. Here’s how.

1. Engage in Resistance and Activism Work at Your Own Capacity

Being on the front lines in the fight for racial and social justice is the most noble of acts. Getting out into the streets, protesting, speaking up, and letting your voice be heard are all effective ways of fighting systemic racism. However, it’s important to acknowledge that social activism can be emotionally taxing and anxiety-provoking.

That being said, it’s okay if you are not able to be on the front lines each and every day. Perhaps one day you have the emotional bandwidth to protest at the Black Lives Matter Protest Plaza in Washington, DC, and the next day you allow yourself time to be still with your emotions and journal about your feelings [2].

Activism work can even look like registering to vote and making a personal commitment to support Black-owned businesses. Whatever level of social engagement you choose, be sure that you are honoring your mental state.

2. Exercise and Incorporate Mind-Body Interventions

As a psychologist and yoga instructor, I am a firm believerin the mind-body connection, which speaks to the interconnectedness of our thoughts, feelings, lifestyle behaviors, and cellular biology. Research has shown that exercise releases endorphins, which can reduce stress, and practices such as yoga, meditation, and tai chi help prevent your nervous system from being on high alert [3].

With the constant cycling of imagery showing police brutality and race-fueled hatred, it is unsurprising that our mental health has taken a hit. If you are like me and your sleep is easily impacted by emotional stressors, then exercise and other movement therapies can be particularly beneficial.

3. Connect With a Provider Who Is Culturally Competent and Trained in Racial Trauma

If you are noticing that you are simply overwhelmed, burned out, and unable to find relief and centeredness at this time, reach out to a mental health provider. It is so important that we talk about our mental health right now, as doing so allows us to access the help we need in order to serve the social causes we truly care about.

Don’t let the quarantine stop you from connecting with a mental health provider! Telehealth has taken off in recent months, and there are more online mental health resources now than ever before. Connecting with a provider who has specific training in cultural competence and racial trauma may be particularly helpful. Some online telehealth companies that I have found to be great resources include:

Therapy for Black Girls (https://therapyforblackgirls.com)

Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (https://www.beam.community/bvtn)

FiveMedicine (https://FiveMedicine.com; full disclosure, I’m the director of behavioral health with this telehealth company)

4. Engage in Joy-Based Practices

It may be tough to think about cultivating happiness and positive experiences during this time of immense suffering and social unrest. But joy is a powerful form of resistance [4]. Like much of contemporary Black culture, the seeds of joy-based practices were sown during slavery. 

Slaves often used storytelling and songs to express and foster joy, while simultaneously helping to transcend the most horrific and inhumane circumstances. In a society that continues to be shaped by oppression, racism, and violence, it can be a powerful statement—to yourself and others—to integrate joy-based practices into your life.

Dance, sing, and laugh with friends. Cook your neighbor a festive meal. Play basketball with the boys. When you find joy regardless of your external circumstances, that is social resistance at its finest.

In the words of African American gospel singer Shirley Caesar: “This joy that I have, the world didn’t give it to me… [and] the world can’t take it away.” 

References

[1] Metzl, J. M. (2009). The protest psychosis: How schizophrenia became a black disease. Boston: Beacon Press.

[2] BEAM tool kits and resources. (n.d.). BEAM. Retrieved June 24, 2020, from https://www.beam.community/tool-kits-education

[3] Breedvelt, J., Amanvermez, Y., Harrer, M., Karyotaki, E., Gilbody, S., Bockting, C., Cuijpers, P., & Ebert, D. D. (2019). The effects of meditation, yoga, and mindfulness on depression, anxiety, and stress in tertiary education students: A meta-analysis. Frontiers in psychiatry10, 193.

[4] Lu, J. H., & Knight Steele, C. (2019). ‘Joy is resistance’: Cross-platform resilience and (re)invention of Black oral culture online. Information, Communication & Society, 22:6, 823-837.

Additional resources include the following books on racism and social justice: