What is racial trauma and how it affects health

The effects of racial trauma on health and well-being are complex and well documented and can be severe.

For marginalized groups, such as blacks and other BIPOC communities, ongoing discrimination and racism become a form of chronic stress, explains Jessica Jackson, PhD, public speaker, researcher, and licensed psychologist in a Houston-based private practice. (Much research shows this, as well as that the health consequences of racism and discrimination can be passed down from one generation to the next.)

Research shows that a higher allostatic load – the wear and tear caused by chronic stress – may explain some of the disparities between whites and blacks in mortality in the United States, according to a study published in 2012 in Journal of the National Medical Association. The researchers reviewed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and compiled allostatic load scores for the participants based on metabolic, cardiovascular, and inflammatory measures (such as blood pressure, blood hemoglobin levels, and cholesterol). After controlling for age and clinical condition, socioeconomic status variables and health behaviors, a higher allostatic load among blacks partially explained higher mortality rates.

Data from the Jackson Heart Study (an ongoing study that began in 2000 that followed more than 5,000 African Americans to better understand disparities in cardiovascular disease) revealed that higher levels of perceived discrimination among African Americans in the United States are linked to behavior poorer health, such as sleeping less and smoking, as well as worse health outcomes, such as a higher incidence of obesity.

Part of what makes racial trauma so insidious, says Smith Lee, is that many of the symptoms stem from the fear of similar trauma repeating itself. “There is fear not only of how a black person might be treated or of an isolated event, but that their safety is at stake and that it may happen again,” she explains.

When you’re always mentally and emotionally on guard like that, it creates a physiological response to stress – it produces cortisol, he explains. It’s normal and healthy if it happens occasionally in response to a stressor you’re dealing with. But if it happens all the time, it can cause all kinds of damage to the body and contribute to anxiety, heart disease, depression, and psychological or cognitive deterioration.

Angela Neal-Barnett, PhD, professor and director of the Anxiety Disorders Research Program among African Americans in the Psychology Department of Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, adds that some people who are exposed to racism and racial trauma or stress for prolonged periods can manifest symptoms similar to PTSD.

According to a review on the subject published in 2019 by the magazine American psychologistthose symptoms can include such as:

  • Hypervigilance
  • Depression
  • Avoid
  • Suspiciousness
  • Chronic stress
  • Physical symptoms such as headache, heart palpitations and others

Problem is also the fact that the burdensome effects of racism begin to accumulate from an early age. A review of 121 studies published in the journal Social Sciences and Medicine found that racial discrimination can lead to negative emotional, psychological and behavioral outcomes, such as extreme paranoia, hypervigilance, and withdrawal, in young people aged 12 and above.

And it is worth noting that the intersection of multiple marginalized identities can exacerbate the effects of racial trauma. A study published in American psychologist in 2019, for example, it analyzed data explaining how the combination of nativism, racism, sexism and anti-immigration policies together contribute to a unique type of ethno-racial trauma for Latinx individuals and communities.

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