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How Does Racial Trauma Affect Overall Health?

We associate the word “trauma” with terrible, life-changing events like assaults, accidents, or natural disasters. Racial trauma is about the emotional and mental harm that is linked to experiences with racism and race-based discrimination.

In the United States, the high prevalence of people who experience racism subsequently results in high levels of racial trauma. But how does racial trauma affect overall health?

The Effects of Racial Trauma on Health

Racial trauma can result in chronic stress due to the continuous discrimination and prejudice that marginalized communities face (Clark, 1999). In fact, the health consequences of the racism faced by communities can actually be transferred to future generations (Goosby, 2013)

The wear and tear on the body caused by chronic stress can be just one of the reasons for mortality rates. Not only does chronic stress cause mental health problems, but it also causes problems with metabolism, cardiovascular health, and inflammatory problems in the body.

High levels of perceived or actual discrimination among African Americans also result in them adopting bad health behaviors, such as issues with sleep and smoking. The symptoms of racial trauma tend to stem from the idea that you will have future experiences just like it – and the fact that there is a non-zero chance of this doesn’t help much.

When you are mentally on guard at all times, your body produces a hormone called cortisol, a physiological stress response. This is healthy occasionally when you have a stressor to deal with, but when your cortisol levels are absurdly high at all times, this can cause problems.

Not only does it result in physical issues, but it’s also linked quite closely with mental health problems like anxiety and depression, and even cognitive impairment.

People exposed to race-based discrimination may also exhibit symptoms of PTSD, including depression, avoidance, hypervigilance, and even physical symptoms like heart palpitations and migraines (Comas-Diaz, 2019).

Coping with Racial Trauma

The solutions for a problem so ingrained into society also lie at a societal level rather than just an individual one. When the environment allows for and advocates for systemic racism, changing the environment is the only way to effectively escape racism and, thus, racial trauma.

Unfortunately, the ability to change the environment lies in the hands of those in power and is not something an individual can do on their own. However, making sure that the voices of racial minorities are heard and that they get access to mental health professionals who can help them deal with the trauma is necessary for them to get by until society brings about sustainable change.

References

Clark, R., Anderson, N. B., Clark, V. R., & Williams, D. R. (1999). Racism as a stressor for African Americans. A biopsychosocial model. The American psychologist, 54(10), 805–816. https://doi.org/10.1037//0003-066x.54.10.805

Goosby BJ, Heidbrink C. Transgenerational Consequences of Racial Discrimination for African American Health. Sociol Compass. 2013 Aug 1;7(8):630-643. doi: 10.1111/soc4.12054. PMID: 24855488; PMCID: PMC4026365.

Comas-Díaz, L., Hall, G. N., & Neville, H. A. (2019). Racial trauma: Theory, research, and healing: Introduction to the special issue. American Psychologist, 74(1), 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000442