Usually the conversation around inequality centers on things we can measure. We can see the disparity on just about every quantifier of equality:

  • Income. In 2017 black men were paid less than 70 cents for every $1 paid to white men.
  • Net worth. The white-black income gap in median net worth increased from $132,800 in 2013 to $153,500 in 2016.
  • Employment rate. Black unemployment is consistently twice that of white unemployment.
  • Health. Even the coronavirus is more likely to impact black Americans than white Americans.

But what we can’t plot on a chart and see with the same clarity is the cumulative effect, not just of these stark contrasts, but of the everyday strains, known as microaggressions. The slight suspicion, nominal service, and dismissiveness that mark a more subtle form of racism have devastating consequences on mental health.

According to research published by the American Psychological Association (APA), discrimination-related stress is linked to mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression—even in children. This report doesn’t come as a surprise, but the severity of the problem may.

In the APA’s Stress In America: The Impact of Discrimination report, American Indian/Alaska Natives (81 percent), Blacks (76 percent), Asians (74 percent) and Hispanics (72 percent) report having experienced everyday discrimination, compared to 61 percent of all adults.

And over half of the black respondents (60 percent) added that their lives have been “at least a little harder because of discrimination.”

How Discrimination Affects Health

People who say they have faced discrimination rate their stress levels higher, on average, than those who say they have not experienced discrimination. That’s true across racial and ethnic groups. Elevated stress then creates a domino of mental and physical issues.

Here’s what happens: Race-based stress increases cortisol, raises blood pressure, and increases heart rate. Researchers in Scandinavia have also found that race-based social stress disrupts sleep.

The cascade from these two reactions can lead to anything from chronic conditions like high blood pressure to cognitive setbacks. Depressive symptoms are one of the most common and documented of these effects. Study after study confirms that an increase in reported encounters with discrimination is associated with an increase in symptoms of depression.

Anticipating Racism Is Enough To Cause Health Problems

Conditioned hyper-vigilance can have the same effect as stress-induced discrimination. And, in the very least, can influence perceptions and experiences. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates describes this in his nonfiction book Between The World And Me when he writes about an encounter with a stranger in Paris. “I felt that I had missed part of the experience because of my eyes, because my eyes were made in Baltimore, because my eyes were blindfolded by fear.”

Our past experiences are how we process our current reality. As research neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, puts it, “millions of predictions of what you will encounter next in the world are based on a lifetime of past experience.”

Those predictions don’t even have to be right. Just thinking someone harbors a negative or racist view, creates stress—whether or not they actually do. The expectation for prejudice and the reflexive scanning for it kick off the same stress response as experiencing discrimination. Social scientist, Pamela J. Sawyer, PhD, and her colleagues found that anticipating prejudice leads to a psychological and cardiovascular stress responses.

In fact, just being a member of a group that is often discriminated against, regardless of personal experiences and perceptions, can cause stress and self-esteem issues.

Tips For Coping With Discrimination-Induced Stress

The American Psychological Association outlined six important steps.

  1. Focus on your strengths. Concentrating on your core values, beliefs, and strengths may buffer the negative effects of bias.
  2. Seek support systems. It’s easy to internalize others’ negative beliefs—even when they’re wrong. But family and friends can set you straight. People close to you can also reassure you that you’re not imagining these experiences and can help you work through how you’re feeling and what you can do.
  3. Get involved. Join like-minded groups and organizations. Part of what’s so damaging about being discriminated against is feeling like an outsider. Belonging to something where other people have had similar experiences and accept you can counteract that.
  4. Keep calm. Being the target of discrimination can stir up strong emotions: anger, sadness, and embarrassment. All of these can trigger a physiological response and lead to stress and physical issues. Slow your breathing to calm your body’s stress response. The old trick of counting backwards from ten works or try an app like Calm or Headspace.
  5. Don’t dwell. Yes, it’s hard to shake it off, but ruminating makes things much worse. Researchers have found that dwelling on negative thoughts and experiences leads to more stress and anxiety.
  6. Seek professional help.Think of this as any other health risk. Find a pro who can help you manage what you’re dealing with.


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Last Updated: Jun 22, 2021