The impact of racism on health

By Monica Hinton | August 7, 2020
Illustration depicting racism

Monica Hinton, a social worker at Sharp McDonald Center and president of the San Diego Chapter of the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi).
The human body strives to maintain internal stability – physiologically and psychologically. This means we desire to be at a neutral state of contentment at all times. However, stress, worry and trauma cause the opposite.
When we experience stress – no matter how small or large, directly or indirectly – our bodies start a process called allostasis, a fight-or-flight response that aims to reset our equilibrium.
Allostatic load is the term that describes the "wear and tear" on the body of someone who experiences repeated or chronic stress over time, including work, deadlines, finances and family. Research has shown that persistent stressors or trauma can lead to health problems; an estimated 80% of all sickness may be related to chronic stress.
You may experience some of these symptoms when your allostatic load is in overdrive:

  • Fatigue

  • Stomach aches and digestive problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

  • Rapid heart rate and high blood pressure

  • Fear, anxiety and feelings of helplessness

  • Diabetes and obesity

  • Disruptions in cognitive functioning

In addition, a person experiencing chronic stress may choose to partake in unhealthy behaviors, such as overeating, abusing drugs or alcohol, or isolating and shutting down.
Racism and allostatic load
Racism is a not just an everyday stressor, but also a chronic experience of significant distress. For some, it can lead to post-traumatic stress; for others, it is a feeling of being threatened and helplessness.
Racism, or any -ism, is toxic to your body, both physically and mentally.
A significantly high allostatic load will occur when people are exposed to racist acts over a lifetime. Some examples include being called derogatory names, harassment, mistreatment, police violence, being followed in a store, and being ignored, dismissed or overlooked for a job.
Consequently, people experiencing racism can feel frustrated, angry, fearful and depressed. They remain in a state of fight-or-flight and demonstrate behaviors – such as abusing alcohol and drugs, isolation, and avoiding addressing health care needs – in an attempt to maintain equilibrium.
In a study by the American Journal of Public Health, allostatic load was calculated for a group of white and Black people varying in gender. The results of the study showed that Black people had higher scores than white people, and had a greater probability of a high score at all ages. Across all poverty levels, Black women had the highest and second highest probability of high allostatic load scores resulting in a higher likelihood of health issues including, but not limited to, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
At the same time, people who participate in racist acts similarly experience toxic stress and high allostatic loads. They are often angry, anxious and fearful, and believe they must act in aggressive ways to equally be heard or maintain control of their lives.
Both ways are physically and emotionally bad for your health.
Managing the stress of racism
While it is a difficult task to combat racism, it is possible to manage the stress and distress associated with racism.
Three things you can do for your physical health include eating healthy, getting enough sleep and exercising. For your emotional health, a simple exercise to practice is reviewing your "GRAPES" – an acronym for the following key concepts to implement daily for mental wellness:
Gentle with Self – Practice self-compassion and be compassionate toward others. Be willing to listen to other points of view.
Relaxation – Do something relaxing, such as meditating, taking a bath, and spending time in nature or with animals.
Accomplishment – Do something rewarding each day or complete a task you have been putting off.
Pleasure – Do something fun. Surely, there is no fun in hating others. Instead, act like a kid and just play.
Exercise – Get your heart rate up for 30 minutes a day, even if just for a leisurely walk around the neighborhood.
Social – Spend time with family and people who you enjoy.

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