How Racism-Related Vigilance Affects Health In BIPOC Communities

Persistently elevated stress levels have been linked to numerous conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and even diabetes. The question is: is racism-related vigilance a significant contributor to elevated stress levels, and if so, is it a separate risk factor? Recent research suggests what the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) community could have already told us. The answer appears to be a resounding yes.

A review published in 2009 looked at a total of 134 studies on the subject of perceived discrimination and health. They concluded that heightened vigilance had a “significantly negative impact on physical and mental health.” 

We know that chronic, uncontrolled, unpredictable stress negatively impacts health. We have numerous studies pointing to the fact that the anticipation of stress can be just as detrimental to our well-being as the stressor itself.

In both cases our bodies are swimming in a sea of stress hormones that can increase our risk for high blood pressure and heart disease. Sometimes, the anticipation can be more deleterious because the constant ruminating about the past and worrying about the future has the potential to be with us at all times, even when we sleep. This can eventually start eroding our physical and mental health and, may even lead to long-term anxiety and depression—both of which have also been linked to poor disease outcomes.

Another contributing factor may be that some individuals who experience continual high stress levels may adopt coping behaviors and habits that have a negative impact on their health. This tends to be especially true if these individuals feel as if their concerns are invalidated or, if they are lacking a good support system.

Individuals that are experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression may be particularly susceptible. In some communities, there is an innate distrust of the health care system. Some may not seek help due to concerns about being belittled or dismissed. There is also the cultural stigma that is often attached to mental health issues. Compound this with all the other risk factors and it is a recipe for difficult to treat chronic conditions.

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