Racism, Mental Health and Mindfulness

The Annual General Meeting of Shepparton Region Reconciliation Group was held on Monday 5 September at Sandhurst Catholic Care. Guest Speaker at the meeting was Terry James, who gave an overview of research into Perseverative Cognition and Aboriginal Australians. Ms James has undertaken collaborative research at Rumbalara and her work gives insights into the effects of racism on physical and mental health.

Terry James, PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne has been researching examine the relevance of perseverative cognition for Aboriginal people in relation to race-related stress. This includes social and emotional wellbeing in the face of stresses and threats experienced by the indigenous community and the ongoing states of mind this produces. Chronic anxiety and stress has overall wear and tear on individual health.

Terry James at the Shepparton Region Reconciliation Group AGM

Terry James at theShepparton Region Reconciliation Group AGM

Questions considered in the work of Ms Terry James include (among others),

  • Do we need to re-define what a stressful event is?
  • What resources, skills and strategies do Aboriginal people use to cope with day-to-day stress and ongoing anxiety?
  • How might these be developed into a healing/resilience intervention?

Indigenous people experience silent, invisible stress in many forms. The autonomic nervous system acts to Prepare, Protect and Preserve the body from challenges and threats to personal safety and wellbeing, real and perceived. The presence of ongoing stressors and cyclic turning over and replay of stress situations can produce a feeling of hopelessness and result in mental health disorders. The personal experience of silent, invisible racism is often not understood as a cause of inner stress and anxiety resulting in long-term effects and chronic anxiety.

Indigenous wellbeing begins with connectedness to all that is country, a relationship with the mainstream society, a history, a sense of control, a capacity to deal with threats. Image courtesy Rumbalara Aboriginal Cooperative.

In her talk, Terry James often referred to the immediate, felt affects of anxiety and stress, the heartbeat rises, the breath is shorter, the fight-flight response is continually switched on within as a form of prepare, protect, preserve the self. When we replay emotions, the physiological effects continue, and this may produce a situation of anticipatory stress, where social situations contribute to feeling vulnerable and producing hyper-vigilance. How does one manage emotions with regard to invisible stress?

Worry and Rumination are also internal stressors. These may detach a person from reality. A focus on the past, perpetually evaluating self worth, regrets, a feeling of loss, and inability to solve problems can result in public behaviour by an indigenous person to deflect and avoid racial provocation and contain pain. Where pain is contained, the body - through the nervous system - experiences chronic prepare-protect-preserve response which builds inner wear and tear. Chronic anxiety results, with physiological symptoms. Indigenous people in Australia suffer high rates of depression, anxiety and chronic illness, Ms James told. A state of ‘prolonged action preparation’ becomes a toxic factor in personal health.

Mindfulness can Reduce the Effects of Stress

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is a brief western based method which provides opposite effect to rumination and worry. It focusses attention to stay in the present moment. As the opposite to learned helplessness, Mindfulness is a learned self-empowerment skill that takes the mind away from past and future threats and stressors and over time, becomes an automatic mode of being. This is not push-button freedom from prepare, protect, preserve; it is a inner personal discipline that trains the mind to not react to external situations but to remain in a state of equanimity. Ms Terry James went on to say that this is not based on any particular psychology or religion, and is a demonstrated effective method to reduce worry and stress and found to be more effective than cognitive behaviour therapy.

Where there are external stressful events such as race-related emotional abuse, there are limited avenues of control and predictability available to the person experiencing emotional and physiological stress. Mindfulness gives an inner control, an inner method of emerging from stressful social environments with personal success.

Man and his dog. The man can be mind-full - and filled with anticipation, worry, stress. The dog, however, is in the present moment, experiencing a sunny day. Mindfulness can place us in the present moment free from all stressors.

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