How Discrimination Affects Your Mental And Physical Health

The unfortunate reality for marginalized communities is that discrimination is hardly ever a surprise. It can be disappointing, scary and infuriating, but it’s rarely shocking.

When someone has experienced years of bias, prejudice and unfair treatment, it can eventually feel like a perpetual state of waiting for the other shoe to drop ― a sense that it’s just a matter of time before the next emergence of some ugly attitude. It might take any form: Maybe it will be racist, or homophobic ― or antisemitic, as in the recent case of Kanye West.

And while it’s never a surprise to deal with discrimination, it’s always harmful to experience. And that harm goes further than you probably think.

Discrimination has major and lasting effects, whether it arrives in the form of big things like being denied proper health care or seemingly smaller things like microaggressions.

“Any form of discrimination, but in particular ones about race and ethnic identities, have huge consequences on mental health,” said Chanel Meyers, an assistant professor in the psychology department at the University of Oregon.

And those consequences don’t end with your mental health. As Meyers notes, there are also negative physical health outcomes related to experiencing discrimination.

Here, experts explain what discrimination does to your body and mind.

It causes high levels of stress.

According to Jared Montoya, a professor in the School of Business and Leadership at Our Lady of the Lake University in Texas, “individuals who are victims of discrimination tend to have heightened levels of stress.”

Discriminatory events activate our stress response, which results in a flood of physiological processes like headaches, accelerated heart rate and more. The stress response becomes prolonged in cases where the discrimination is ongoing.

Ongoing discrimination can refer to a few different things. It can mean constant exposure to discriminatory events, but it can also take the form of discrimination that happens on a recurring basis throughout someone’s life.

“We create a particular response mechanism to different instances,” Montoya said. For people who have dealt with discrimination at different points in their life, “when they find themselves in a similar situation again, much of [those response mechanisms] resurface.”

On top of that, those kinds of similar situations will likely trigger whatever stress or trauma a person might be holding on to from any past discriminatory encounters.

“It’s almost like they’re experiencing it again, plus whatever is being added on to that,” Montoya said.

It results in higher levels of anxiety and depression.

“There’s been plenty of research that has demonstrated that people from marginalized racial-ethnic backgrounds who experience discrimination on those facets of their identity report greater levels of anxiety, a greater amount of depressive symptoms and also, in general, a more negative affect,” Meyers said.

It can be hard to feel your best when you’re forced to deal with prejudice and bias again and again throughout your life.

Your anxiety may even be fueled by certain anticipatory feelings: You may anticipate that you won’t be accepted in certain situations, which can only result in more negative feelings, said Carly Coons, a licensed social worker and director of education and programming at the Blue Dove Foundation, a Georgia-based organization that “works to address mental illness and addiction in the Jewish community and beyond.”

It creates a lack of safety.

Safety is a basic human need, and without it, it’s impossible to thrive and even tough to simply survive. If you experience ongoing discrimination, your safety is pulled away from you, often with no warning.

“A society should be a place where people feel safe to be themselves,” Coons said.

If you lose that safety after experiencing a discriminatory event or learning that your community is being targeted, it becomes challenging to regain that safety and maintain it. Folks have to constantly observe their surroundings and decide if they feel safe being themselves in certain spaces, Coons said. And that gets in the way of connecting and engaging with the world around you.

“That’s the thing about discrimination and about antisemitism ― it’s meant to attack us as individuals and make us not feel as if we’re enough, which we are, but it becomes very isolating,” she said.

Discrimination can cause people to develop a trauma response.

Meyers said that people who continuously experience discrimination can develop trauma responses as a result.

“Commonly, we talk about racial trauma, but you could really experience trauma based on whatever marginalized identity that you are on the receiving end,” she said.

People who experience these trauma responses report symptoms similar to those who have post-traumatic stress disorder — things like hypervigilance, flashbacks, nightmares and a tendency to easily become suspicious, she said.

“We think of trauma as something really exaggerated, but just forms of discrimination if you’re repeatedly experiencing them is a form of trauma,” she said. Trauma doesn’t have to come from a huge display of discrimination, either: It can be caused by something as seemingly small as a friend or family member invalidating a racist experience.

ljubaphoto via Getty Images

People who deal with ongoing discrimination may experience restless nights.

It can affect essential functions, like sleep and your immune system.

“When your body is under stress, it decreases its ability to take care of itself,” Coons said. And as mentioned above, someone who deals with discrimination also deals with heightened levels of stress.

When your body is stressed, you may have trouble sleeping, which can affect your productivity at work and your ability to connect with loved ones.

What’s more, if you aren’t sleeping well, your immune system can suffer too. A 2017 study found that “sleep deprivation makes a living body susceptible to many infectious agents.”

So, the stress that comes from antisemitism, racism or other forms of discrimination can actually make you more likely to get physically sick.

It can make people withdraw.

To deal with the flurry of negative emotions that accompany discrimination, people often become withdrawn, Montoya said. They’ll avoid particular places or situations that could trigger them or that could result in a discriminatory event.

Because of this, “they may not have that social experience that is part of our general well-being,” he said. And connection and belongingness are crucial to our fundamental needs.

Discrimination makes people feel “othered” or not part of the “in-group,” Montoya said. This makes people turn inward, whether consciously or unconsciously, and it creates a vicious cycle — you’re withdrawn, you’re not engaging with the group, and then the group sees you as withdrawn, so they don’t invite you in.

It’s a cycle that almost creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, Montoya noted.

Community support is necessary to make a change.

Discrimination is scary and angering, and it can feel never-ending. If you’re part of a group that deals with discrimination, it’s important to take care of yourself. On some level, this is an unfair thing to ask of people, Meyers noted. “It’s a hard thing to even talk about, because you’re basically telling victims of discrimination to do something about it, which they shouldn’t have to, right?” she said. “The problem is not with them.”

It’s more important for people to call out discrimination, both when it’s affecting their community and even more so when it’s affecting another group. And for people who don’t deal with discrimination, it’s doubly important to call it out.

“There is a reason why we should confront discrimination, there is a reason why we need to see [fewer] instances of this,” Meyers said. “It’s because of norm-setting in society — that really guides so much of our behavior. We see what other people do and we take that information as ‘OK, this is acceptable.’”

If people confront and shut down discrimination, it’ll help solidify the understanding in society that this behavior is not OK. “I think that is the key way we turn the needle on prejudice in our society,” Meyers said.

Montoya said we need to be constantly vigilant in calling out discrimination and racism, no matter who it’s affecting in a given moment.

“We don’t need to wait for these cycles to occur,” Montoya said, adding that there will always be someone stirring the pot because we live in a climate that allows for this behavior. The only way that can change is by society pushing back.

“If we’re not vigilant, then we’re going to have these [discriminatory] instances again and again,” Montoya said — as we have since the beginning of time.