How Discrimination Changes Your Brain

Researchers are building a case.

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Mar 21 2017, 3:00pm

We know discrimination is rampant in the United States; especially these days. But do we know what's going on in the brains of people on the receiving end? We're starting to get an idea.

The brain experiences discrimination as a form of stress, something uncontrollable and unpredictable, or sometimes more intensely as a threat to survival. The process of appraising the situation leads to a cascade of both emotional and physiological responses, something akin to the classic "fight or flight" response, says Vickie Mays, a professor of psychology and health policy and management at the University of California Los Angeles. Shortly after determining the threat, the amygdala, a small structure in the brain that links emotion and action, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, which links the nervous and endocrine systems. That triggers the release of the hormone cortisol, which affects a number of the body's processes, such as increased blood pressure and faster breathing and heartbeat. Higher-order thinking processes are quieted as the senses are sharpened. The severity of the reaction depends on a lot of things, including the type of discrimination and person's sensitivity to it.

Big, traumatic events are fairly uncommon, says Laura Richman, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University—at least, they were until recently, since hate crimes have been on the rise since the presidential election. But the same stress reaction in the brain can result from microaggressions, like when a store clerk silently follows a customer for fear that he or she might steal. Sometimes stress reactions can happen as the result of the anticipation of a discriminatory situation, without any incident having occurred at all—say, when a black man passes a cop on the street. A person can also get a second-hand account of discrimination from someone he or she identifies with, maybe from a friend or relative, and feel the negative effects. For some, this knowledge or cynicism can help protect them from the future surprise or unpredictability of discrimination, Richman says.

Over time, frequent stress response can lead to serious mental and physical effects. One 2007 study showed that perceived racial prejudice can inhibit a person's performance on a cognitive assessment. Chronic stress can alter the brain's structure and connectivity, increasing a person's chances of developing conditions like depression, anxiety responses or disorders. "There are individuals for whom racism is akin to a trauma that does leave one with some of the same kinds of reactions, tendencies, etc., that you would see in PTSD," Mays says, though she notes that these individuals can lack the specific triggering event associated with conventional post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, some studies suggest that modern, more ambiguous forms of racism can demand more psychological resources from the victim than does "old fashioned," or more blatant, racism.

Long-term stress has also been associated with numerous physiological issues, including heart disease, obesity, and premature death. It's difficult at this point to distinguish the effects of discrimination from those brought on by other types of stress, Richman says, but it's an area that researchers are looking into.

Other than proxy measurements like blood pressure or cortisol levels, it's not easy to measure the intensity of a person's response. An individual's ability to cope with stress can affect the severity of the long-term effects. Some factors, such as personality, previous experience, and even genetics can determine how well someone is able to cope with a stress like that involved in discrimination. Resources also play a role, like if someone has the financial means to change jobs if they feel their employer is prejudiced, or if a person has a strong community to support him or her during moments of distress.

Doing the kinds of studies needed to truly understand how discrimination can affect people's bodies and minds is pricey, Mays says. Education and awareness campaigns can go a long way towards stopping toxic behavior from prejudiced people; greater awareness of the long term impact of discrimination could help public health officials launch awareness campaigns or even early interventions for kids who show proclivities for such behavior, similar to those designed to combat bullying, Mays says.

Healthcare providers are starting to acknowledge the huge role that discrimination can have on health. "I think in general people underestimate the effects of discrimination," Richman says. "They don't appreciate that there really are harmful psychological and physiological effects that people can experience."