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Stress and discrimination go hand-in-hand, psychologists' survey says

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Matt Hellman/ Missourian via AP/File

(Read caption) Students at the University of Missouri gather as System President Tim Wolfe announces his resignation in November 2015. Mr. Wolfe resigned amid campus protests alleging that the school did not properly address racial discrimination at the Columbia, Mo., campus.

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If money and work are stressing you out, you're in good company: 67 percent and 65 percent, respectively, of American adults call those significant causes of stress. But those numbers soar much higher for nonwhite Americans, according to the American Psychological Association's (APA) annual Stress in America survey: money is a significant stressor for 62 percent of whites, for example, but 77 percent of Hispanics, 78 percent of blacks, and 70 percent of Asians and Native Americans.

It's one piece of a puzzle psychologists, economics, and health experts are starting to pay much more attention to: how the day-to-day demands of dealing with discrimination impact stress and health in America.

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Sixty-nine percent of American adults believe they've experienced discrimination, whether that's a hiring manager's preference for young workers, or a security guard following a young black shopper through the mall.

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Those who report discrimination also report higher stress levels. White Americans who report discrimination, for example, say their stress is a 5.4 on a ten-point scale, versus 4.0 for whites who have not been discriminated against; among black Americans, on the other hand, people reporting discrimination say their stress levels are at 5.5, versus 3.8 for those who do not.  

"Certainly everyone experiences stress in their lives. That’s to be expected," Dr. Lynn F. Bufka, the APA's Assistant Executive Director for Practice Research and Policy, told reporters in a virtual briefing. But when stressful experiences become chronic, exceeding our resources to deal with them, they exert a mental and physical toll. Day-to-day experiences of discrimination are particularly "insidious" examples of that, the APA team says, in part because they're so hard to anticipate and interpret.

The result can be a taxing "vigilance" and lowered self-esteem, the researchers believe. Forty-three percent of Native Americans, for example, say they are careful about how they speak in hopes of avoiding discrimination, and 31 percent and 29 percent of Hispanic and black adults, respectively, say they feel a need to change their appearance for the same reason.

Well-being takes a toll from "never knowing how you're going to be evaluated," Dr. Bufka says, and can impact your understanding of "where you fit into the world." 

Part of that stress, another of the team's members says, is the uncertainty: is the other person just having an off day? Did I do something wrong? Or are they demonstrating a bias? It's particularly tricky, University of Michigan professor James Jackson says, because discrimination often takes place in "one on one" situations, without witnesses who could share their impressions.

The impact of the Great Recession, which disproportionately impacted minority groups, may also contribute to higher stress levels. 

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Although there is a pronounced income gap between white Americans and nonwhite Americans, an even wider wealth gap exists, taking into account other factors like home and stock values. Between 2010 and 2013, black households' net worth fell almost 34 percent, to $11,000. Meanwhile, non-Hispanic white households' net worth increased by 2.4 percent, rising to $141,900. 

That gap is particularly foreboding, economists say, because it represents the safety net families often reach into during tight times, and can pass on from one generation to the next. 

"That reservoir of what you can dig into for emergencies and contingencies is a lot shallower in communities of color," Professor Tom Shapiro, director of the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University, told The New York Times in 2013. "That pushes black families to sling off assets, like I.R.A.s or stocks, that you might have had another goal in mind for."

Before 2008, there was no significant difference in stress levels for Americans making more or less than $50,000, according to previous stress studies from the APA. By the 2014 study, average stress levels had decreased, yet a clear income gap opened up: those with higher incomes reported a stress level of 4.7 on a ten-point scale, versus 5.2 for those with lower incomes. 

"All Americans, and particularly those groups that are most affected by stress – which include women, younger adults and those with lower incomes – need to address this issue sooner than later in order to better their health and well-being," the organization said at the time.