How Microaggressions Affect Black Health

By Jada Vanderpool

As discussions of systemic racism and diversity in all spaces continue, the subtler forms of racism – like microaggressions are rising to the surface in conversations as well.

Microaggressions is defined as daily subtle verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities – whether intentional or unintentional that communicate negative attitudes towards marginalized groups. While labeled as micro offenses, victims characterized them as “death by 1,000 little cuts.”

Examples of microaggressions include ascription of intelligence; assuming a person of color has criminal behavior without any claim basis; treating someone as abnormal due to their cultural values or forms of communicating; or even blindness to the historical societal influences that affect one’s ability to succeed.

Discrimination and microaggressions is linked to heightened anxiety, depression and prolonged stress and trauma.

In a natural response to stress, when our body perceives a threat, your hypothalamus – a tiny region at our brain base send an alert to our body. The symptom prompts your adrenal glands to release hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol increases glucose in our blood stream and our brain, but when stress passes our body returns to a normal state. With chronic stress, our body remains in this fight and flight stress. Prolonged exposure to stress can lead to serious health complications, including high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Symptoms of chronic stress include extreme irritability; low energy, digestive problems, sleep issues; difficulty concentrating; frequent infections and illnesses; and more.

How it affects healthcare

Microaggressions in the healthcare can significantly alter the patient-doctor experience. A satisfactory health care experience is linked to a patient’s health. A 2019 PLOS study found that many Black and LatinX patients reported feeling that their doctors held negative stereotypes about race. This disconnect can lead to a lack of understanding for a patient’s attention needs, and poor treatment, which can cause a patient to follow-up less on treatment.

In the medical community, it’s still unclear if consistent exposure to discrimination through microaggressions should be categorized as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

A study from the American Psychological Association found that while therapy clients who experience microaggressions have symptoms similar to or equivalent to PTSD, clinicians tend to lean their diagnosis more towards anxiety, depression or another related psychological disorder. As a result, clients are treated for cognitive and behavioral reactions to discrimination. They are taught that they are suffering from internal reasons, versus PTSD clients who are taught that they are suffering from external causes.

Patients can internalize the affects of microaggressions as a personal issue they need to get over.

Imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is defined as feelings of inadequacy and fraud in one’s ability despite proven achievements. For minorities, this chronic feeling of self doubt can lead to stress and anxiety for nearly any tasks.

Excessive Smoking

A study from John Hopkins University found a link between racial discrimination, excessive smoking and pain in marginalized American Indian/ Alaska Native and LGBTQ individuals.

Among smokers, smoke and tobacco use is often viewed as a calming relief to reduce stress and anxiety. Yet smoking has fatal health effects, as smokers are more likely to develop heart disease, stroke and cancer. In addition, smoking causes about 90% of all lung cancer deaths.

If you’re experiencing microaggressions in your work or family life, begin to build your own trusted community and share your experience with others. You can do this through social groups, therapy, or with loved ones.