Riana Elyse Anderson (Interview)

Art by Sam Liacos.

Assistant professor in the Health Behavior and Health Education Department in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan on developing new coping mechanisms and processing repetitive trauma.

What does emotional wellness mean to you?
Wellness for me goes back to the classic psychological questions: Can you function? How are you functioning? Emotional wellness in that way is taking a look at your emotional functioning. Are you able to essentially see what your baseline is? And how far are you from that baseline? So you might be functioning, you might be able to make it through the day, but is that OK? And does that look like that every day, where you’re falling out every day? Is that OK? Essentially, it’s a mix of two things: It’s knowing what your baseline is and assessing if that baseline is even OK.

What is a sign or indicator that you’re headed in the right direction as far as taking better care of your emotional wellness?
Knowing what is normal for you is one indicator. I’m someone who sucks at this. I can go through a 13-14 hour work day, and then go to an event after that. I’ll be running on fumes and that might be my normal. Then one day, I’m depleted, can’t get off the couch, and am like, Man, that sucks. But every time that happens, it’s a warning: OK, don’t do this. I think for an average emotional indicator, if you are feeling stress in your body or your mind…

I always use the Charlie Brown imagery where I don’t know if it’s Charlie Brown himself or someone on the show who has those squiggles above his head…I think about it [in] that way; when there’s a squiggle above your head, you’re trying to bat it away, and you’re trying to get through the day, but your body’s telling you something isn’t quite right.

Are there any steps that you’d advise Black people to take as far as how to process everything happening all at once, while by themselves? 
I think particularly for black folx, when we think about the role of social support, families, etc., it is particularly challenging for people who are used to these networks and used to getting support in this way. You will hear stories about how discrimination or racism has manifested, of course, even in quarantine, because why would it not? It’s a part of our fabric, so why would it not pop up just because we’re not around each other, right? But those normal networks that we were used to going to then–like your mom’s house for Sunday dinner to relieve some stress or your line sister’s house– all of these networks have been flattened in a way. On the one hand, we can’t see them and it’s been challenging, but on the other, we must ensure that we still avail ourselves to these phone calls or [virtual] happy hours. Now that things are opening up, and depending on where folks are living where it’s tentatively safer, we can make use of porches, stoops, and outdoor spaces where you can still convene to get the social support that you need, because we’re really not made to be isolated in the ways that we have in the past few months. 

What are your thoughts on people, specifically Black people, having to encounter and process repetitive trauma as they scroll through their timelines?
We know from studies on adults and children that watching instances of someone who looks like you, in particular, being killed in such a dehumanizing way really ramps up the anxiety, depression, stress, and then trauma-like symptoms. Certainly watching those things has absolutely played out in a time where those numbers were already quite high from the pandemic; so we were already experiencing increased community grief and lamentation. Many of the studies that are coming out now indicate just how much of a disparity there was between Black people knowing someone who died getting COVID-19 and white folks knowing someone who died [from COVID-19], so it’s not just about who died, but it was your network and who you know and how this is impacting you. For the past four months, all you’ve known is death and then you have statistics coming at you and then a video demonstrating that it doesn’t matter even if George Floyd beat COVID, right? This man beat the odds on that and then succumbed… Yes, trauma is absolutely something that has been reified and solidified over the past few months. And then you have these very clear videos and images of Ahmaud [Arbery] and Rayshard [Brooks], who were going about living their lives and still [were] snuffed out in such a violent way. 

Is there a healthy way to process that?
Be mindful that what trauma does to us is have us seek out that information even more. It’s kind of like trauma porn; that is another way of saying it. But you have to counter that by saying, ‘This is not helping me. I have to get away from it.’ You can talk about it, you can process it with someone. If you have been exposed to it, you can still talk about it. Try to put down your phone, turn away from the TV, go outside, take advantage of some of the things that are now opening up, and take advantage of your support network. Those are all things that can help reduce some of the stresses that you’ve been exposed to. 

How would you advise one to find a balance in the “new normal,” in regards to the pandemic?
Your normal coping strategies, your normal healing wellness routine might be hampered because of the feeling that you have given the quarantine. Be mindful that the new normal might look different because the environment is different, and what we do is cope with the environment as it’s presented to us. We can’t say that every coping strategy that we have is going to work across every setting, especially in something like a global pandemic mixed with a race riot mixed with everything that’s happened with the Supreme Court this week. It’s a different world, so why do you think your work against that world would be the same?

It’s about trial and error–testing a new strategy to see if it advantages you. You can’t just go from one thing to another without saying, ‘Well, what do I think in this moment would feel better than what I’m doing? Is there a way that I can test for a day or two how that feels?’ 

Data is the thing that helps us. We can’t just keep it in our minds. We have to process and say, ‘At the end of today, I felt better than yesterday because…’ or ‘I did the following thing so that I’m able to change my outcome.’ But that requires you writing it down, or journaling, or using an app, or whatever that looks like so that you’re giving yourself data and quantifying.

How would you advise one to remain vulnerable during such uncertain times? 
I’m going to keep going back to this idea of data and figuring out where you are first. The work that I do is around racial stress and trauma for families, how families talk about race and racism with one another. The first thing that we do is tell families or often parents, ‘If you don’t know how you feel about something and you think you’re just about to launch into a conversation with your child, you’re going to be woefully stressed and mistaken that it’s going to be an effective and easy conversation. You’re gonna be overwhelmed with the things that happen when we don’t prepare, when we don’t have a sense of who we are and what we want to say.’ I would think that that extends to our personal relationships and our friendships where if you don’t have a sense of where you are, what it is that you need, how it is that you’re feeling, you won’t be able to advocate for yourself. You won’t be able to tell people, ‘It would be helpful if you did X, Y, and Z’ or even say out loud, ‘If I had the chance to do X, Y and Z…’ It’s not always that people can help in what it is that you need, but you have to be able to name it. You’re then able to find data points about yourself [and] your day so that you can then articulate it or at least put a finger on it to say, ‘Ah, that’s that thing that I didn’t know was happening that can be really important.’

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