Racism, Stress & Chronic Illness

⁣Racism Is a Public Health Issue

In the midst of a social uprising following the senseless killings of Black individuals (e.g., Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd), America has no choice but to acknowledge the insidious effects of racism, especially within the Black community. It’s critical we explore the detrimental effects that racism can have on a person’s health, both mentally and physically, and and how racial healthcare disparities perpetuate the inaccessibility of necessary resources.

people holding a white and black signage during daytime
The lives of Black people MATTER. Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

Racism Affects Mental Health

Experiences with racism can slowly deteriorate a person’s mental health over time, not only in adults but also in children and teens. these painful experiences can foster mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and race-based traumatic stress. Racism can do harm through obvious discriminatory treatment (e.g., name-calling, bullying, etc.) and the insidious daily toll of social exclusion and economic disadvantage. Additionally, racism and unconscious bias can influence law officers, teachers, and health care providers to treat BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of Color) differently than their White peers. Experiences with racism can lead to internalized racism, fostering low self-worth and self-limiting beliefs.

Race-based Traumatic Stress

Mental health issues, including trauma, can manifest in both mental and physical symptoms. For example, race-based traumatic stress can develop from emotional pain that a person experiences from racism. The symptoms below may look familiar to those you typically relate with trauma (e.g., those seen in PTSD or acute stress disorder). Trauma is generally associated with symptoms of intrusion, avoidance, and activation that can present emotionally, physiologically, cognitively, behaviorally, or in combination.⠀⠀⠀

Understanding the mind-body connection is essential to holistic treatment.

Racism & Chronic Stress

Obvious discriminatory treatment or the less-obvious daily toll of social exclusion and economic disadvantage can contribute to chronic stress. In turn, chronic stress can increase a person’s vulnerability to developing :

  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • obesity
  • a weakened immune system
  • gastrointestinal disorders
  • respiratory infections
  • autoimmune diseases
  • insomnia

The belief that chronic health conditions are solely the result of unlucky genes or a poor diet is a common misconception. In reality, a person’s physical health is significantly impacted by their mental and emotional wellbeing.

Racism experienced by the Black community can make individuals more vulnerable to chronic stress and adverse health outcomes. Photo by J’Waye Covington on Unsplash

Lower Your Cortisol Levels

Chronic stress levels are correlated with cortisol, a stress hormone involved in the body’s sympathetic nervous system response, or “fight or flight mode.” Although beneficial in times of imminent danger, chronically heigh levels of cortisol contribute to adverse health outcomes.

Help lower your cortisol levels by:

Chronic stress perpetuated by racism can make an individual more susceptible to adverse health outcomes, both mentally and physically. Additionally, barriers to healthcare accessibility in BIPOC communities compound this public health issue.

Consistent exercise, even if just walking or taking breaks to stretch, can significantly help lower cortisol levels. Photo by Madison Lavern on Unsplash

Barriers to Mental Healthcare in Communities of Color

On top of being more vulnerable to race-based stress and mental illness, mental health care is often inaccessible in communities of color. Reasons for this include:

  • The belief that mental health treatment “doesn’t work”
  • Racism, bias, and discrimination in treatment settings
  • A lack of BIPOC mental health providers
  • Mistrust of the healthcare system and providers
  • A culturally-insensitive mental health care system
  • A lack of adequate health insurance coverage
  • Mental health stigma in certain communities
  • Language barriers

Due to the racial and economic inequities embedded in our country’s systems, chronic health conditions could be compounded in communities of color. If you’re BIPOC, make time to practice self-care by acknowledging your emotional reactions.

Honor Your Emotional Reactions

If you’re BIPOC and feel burdened by the weight of racism, remind yourself that emotions like anxiety, anger, sadness are understandable reactions. Accepting your emotions is not equivalent to accepting the existence of racism, nor is it a sign of weakness. Rather, acceptance may allow you to practice self-compassion and combat adverse health effects triggered by chronic stress. In the process of responding externally to social injustices, don’t forget to respond internally and sit with your emotions.

Find healthy ways to express your thoughts and emotions, such as writing them down or talking with someone you trust. Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

Conclusion

A person’s health is composed of mental, physical, social, educational, and economic stability — all of which are hindered by racism. In order to effectively address racism, we must treat it as the public health issue that it is. We must look beyond its symptoms to its roots: the ancient systems that continue to oppress BIPOC communities. Experiences with racism can foster chronic stress that deteriorates a person’s mental and physical health over the lifespan.

Photo by whoislimos on Unsplash

For members of the Black community, visit this holistic resource for Black Healing created by my dear friend, Micalah Webster, a Black healthcare professional. To my White and non-Black POC readers, be mindful of the effects that race-based trauma can have on Black community, especially during this time. Practice thoughtful allyship and please do not minimize their experiences.

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