The last few years have been especially difficult for Asian Americans: The COVID-19 pandemic has infiltrated almost every aspect of daily life for all of us. Unfortunately, racially motivated violence against Asian Americans spread just as quickly as the coronavirus itself.
People have been coughed at and spat on. For a while, verbal insults and threats against women and older people were making headlines every week. March 16 marked the one-year anniversary of a shooting rampage at three Atlanta-area spas, where a man killed eight people — including six women of Asian descent.
Since the shootings, attacks on Asian Americans — especially women — have continued across the country, increasing fear and concerns for safety among the community. The reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate has tracked nearly 11,000 hate incidents against AAPI between March 19, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2021, and the FBI has reported a spike in such hate-motivated violence as well.
Whether you’ve been subjected to discrimination or not, simply hearing about the widespread xenophobia can affect your mental health. We asked therapists who work within Asian American communities to share their best self-care advice for these stressful times.
1. Reach out to friends who can validate your experiences. (Online friends count, too!)
Because we’ve spent so long physically distancing, social bonds are more important now than ever, especially if you’re emotionally exhausted from this current wave of xenophobia and racism. (Maybe you’ve experienced a glare or rude comment yourself at the market or on a walk.)
“I think the need for connection is particularly important when we’ve encountered a micro or macroaggression,” said Gabrielle Zhuang-Estrin, a clinical social worker who works in the Asian American community in Los Angeles. “We should be sharing the burden of our experience. Let family and friends know what’s happening.”
If you see or hear about another person who’s been targeted, reach out and validate their experiences. For instance, if you see a social media post about someone being verbally abused, make a point to comment or DM them a message of support. (It could be something like, “Hey, I know we haven’t spoken since college but I just want to tell you I’m so sorry about what happened to you when you were walking your dog. I’ve had some experiences like that myself recently, so please let me know if you want to talk.”)
“Oftentimes with things like this, you need someone to witness, listen and affirm what we’ve seen,” Zhuang-Estrin said. “I’d also suggest joining a POC or Asian American/APIA online community or advocacy organization to hear more voices that are dealing with this right now and to find larger supportive networks that are mobilizing outreach or action. ”
2. Pull yourself away from the TV and headlines once in a while.
You want to be as informed as possible during an international health crisis like this ― especially when there are local threats to your community. You might feel like you can’t take a break and it’s not until you’re overwhelmed and hit with a wave of exhaustion that you stop. Don’t let it get that far, said Zhuang-Estrin.
“I tell my clients that while watching or reading the news, keep track of your personal experience, your feelings and emotions as well as your bodily reactions,” she said. “Check to see if there’s sadness, grief or anger coming up. If so, maybe you need to take a pause and metabolize that for a moment before moving forward.”
Zhuang-Estrin said to notice sensations in your body ― a tightening in the chest or belly, for instance, or a quickened heart rate ― and let that inform your decisions on what you can take in, content-wise, and when it’s too much.
“We each have our own tolerance levels of what we can absorb and what is too overwhelming and it takes some mindfulness to be aware of when we become overwhelmed with distressing stories,” Zhuang-Estrin said.
When you do take a break, try some mindfulness-based relaxation, go on a walk or do something you love, said Therese Mascardo, a psychologist of Filipino descent who works in the Asian American community.
If you’re constantly overwhelmed and are struggling to self-soothe, consider seeing a therapist — over FaceTime or Zoom, that is.
“Professional mental health support from culturally sensitive licensed therapists can be an effective way to process the emotions related to the trauma, and to learn coping skills for resulting depression, anxiety or hypervigilance,” Mascardo said.
3. If you’re worried about mask harassment, prep how you might respond in advance.
For many Asian Americans, there’s heightened concern about being confronted for still wearing a face covering as mask mandates lift across the country. It’s easy to be wary when you hear stories from others. Take, for instance, this experience novelist Elaine Hsieh Chou tweeted about in April.
“Walking home just now, three men yelled, ‘Coronavirus is over’ at me because I was wearing a mask and then proceeded to make ‘Chinese sounds,’” she said.
“What hurts even more is, as I turned around to stare at them, they were laughing while they walked away,” she added. “They looked like they were going out for the night. They are probably having a great time as we speak. They have certainly forgotten me. Meanwhile I am crying, triggered by all the other times people have shouted at me in public for no reason, when I was minding my own business and just EXISTING.”
It’s likely that you’ll be totally fine going out maskless, but Hsieh Chou’s story is hardly an outlier. To mentally prepare, you might consider what you’d say in the event that someone confronts you about your face covering.
″[It’s] worth actually practicing with a friend now for how you’re going to respond to mask harassment,” author S.E. Smith tweeted recently. “Seriously. Practice. Out loud. Easy to write a mental script, harder in the moment.”
It’s also worth talking through your feelings or experiences with such harassment with your friends and family.
“Ask them what they’ve done to feel OK in situations where they felt like they might be potentially at risk of attack,” Mascardo said. “If it helps when you’re at the market, be on a call or FaceTime with someone who can serve as an emotional support and ‘witness’ if something were to happen.”
4. If you’re discriminated against, put your safety first.
If someone confronts or profiles you because you’re Asian ― whether it’s a dirty look, a racial slur or something worse ― safety should be your first concern. Typically, the best self-defense is to ignore and walk away from a provocation.
“It’s important to remember that by doing so, you are not saying that racism or the racist act is OK,” Mascardo said. “Walking away from a racist encounter is simply choosing to not engage in a lose-lose situation. Then, after you’ve secured safety, it can be valuable to seek immediate emotional support from a friend or loved one.”
If you want to make a complaint ― or just need immediate emotional support ― seek out staff at the market and let them know what happened.
How do you calm down in the moment? Zhuang-Estrin said to breathe in and out and to feel your feet.
“Connecting and expanding into our bodies helps us remain as calm as we can and as open as we can so we can access different action options,” she said. “When you were faced with a threat, your breathing probably became more shallow and your vision narrowed because you were readying yourself [for] rapid action. Taking a breath and staying connected to our bodies also allows us to remain present rather than relying on our immediate impulses.”
However you act, don’t judge yourself for it later. Accepting how you handled the encounter is important, Zhuang-Estrin said, because you don’t want to deal with that “pang of guilt or concern that you haven’t handled the situation ‘right’ on top of everything else.”
5. Lean into literature written for and by Asians.
Now is a great time to grab your Kindle and check out books by Asians and Asian Americans. In this difficult hour, hearing how others in the community have persevered can be heartening, Zhuang-Estrin said.
“I always tell my clients to lean into our ancestors, social justice elders or beloved spiritual figures in hard times,” she said. “It allows us to bring in different models that can help lead how we can think and act during this time. Read Grace Lee Boggs, Maxine Hong Kingston and Thich Nhat Hanh.”
6. Remind yourself that this is part of a larger story.
Try to keep a wide lens when you consider the current wave of xenophobia and racism that Asian Americans are dealing with. These microaggressions and macroaggressions feel painfully personal, but they’re reflective of a larger legacy of oppression against Asians in the U.S., Zhuang-Estrin said.
“Historically, Asian Americans are either exalted (model minority) or vilified (red scare),” she said. “In our current context we are seeing fear and blame being inflamed by a leader who seeks to scapegoat the pandemic so the problem is institutional in nature.”
Recognizing that this is bigger than you isn’t meant to minimize your current experiences. They’re still very valid.
“Looking at our history doesn’t give the other person a pass when we’re directly confronted with racism,” Zhuang-Estrin said. “But holding this wider lens shows us the greater complexity we are in and helps us assess what we can and cannot control.”