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, persistent discrimination and racism become a form of chronic stress, explains Jessica Jackson, a Houston-based Ph.D., public speaker, researcher and licensed psychologist in private practice. (Many studies have shown this, and that the health consequences of racism and discrimination can be passed down from one generation to the next.)

Studies show that higher allostatic load – body wear caused by chronic stress – may explain some of the black and white differences in mortality in the United States, according to a study published in 2012. Journal of the National Medical Association. The researchers reviewed data from the National Health and Nutrition Survey and compiled allostatic load estimates for participants based on metabolic, cardiovascular, and inflammatory measures (such as blood pressure, blood hemoglobin levels, and cholesterol). After controlling for age and clinical conditions, variables of socioeconomic status and health behavior, the higher allostatic burden among blacks partly explains the higher mortality rates.

Data from the Jackson Heart Study (a current study that began in 2000, following more than 5,000 African Americans to better understand the differences in cardiovascular disease) reveal that higher levels of perceived discrimination among African Americans in the United States, they are associated with poorer health behaviors, such as less sleep and smoking, and poorer health outcomes, such as higher rates of obesity.

Part of what makes racial trauma so insidious, says Smith Lee, is that many of the symptoms stem from the fear that such trauma will happen again. “There is a fear not only of how a colored person or an isolated event can be treated, but also that their safety is endangered and this could happen again,” she explains.

When you are always mentally and emotionally alert in this way, it creates a physiological response to stress – it produces cortisol, she explains. This is normal and healthy if it happens sometimes in response to the stress you have to deal with. But if this happens constantly, it can cause all kinds of damage to the body and contribute to anxiety, heart disease, depression and psychological or cognitive impairment.

Angela Neil-Barnett, Ph.D., professor and director of the African American Anxiety Disorder Research Program at the Department of Psychology at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, adds that some people who are exposed to cases of racism and racial trauma or stress for long periods may experience symptoms similar to PTSD.

According to a review on the subject, published in 2019 in the magazine American psychologistthese symptoms may include:

  • Extreme vigilance
  • depression
  • Avoidance
  • Suspicion
  • Chronic stress
  • Physical symptoms such as headache, palpitations and others

The fact that the severe effects of racism begin to accumulate from an early age is also problematic. A review of 121 studies published in the journal Social sciences and medicine found that racial discrimination can lead to adverse emotional, psychological and behavioral outcomes, such as extreme paranoia, hypervigilance and withdrawal, in young people from the age of 12.

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

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