PENN STATE (US) — African Americans who face chronic exposure to racial discrimination may suffer generalized anxiety disorder, a condition so severe it can significantly affect everyday tasks.
People with the disorder may have chronic worrying, intrusive thoughts, and difficulty concentrating. Physically, the disorder may manifest such symptoms as tension headaches, extreme fatigue, and ulcers.
“The results of our study suggest that the notion of racial battle fatigue could be a very real phenomenon that might explain how individuals can go from the experience of racism to the experience of a serious mental health disorder,” says Jose Soto, assistant professor of psychology at Penn State.
“While the term is certainly not trying to say that the conditions are exactly what soldiers face on a battlefield, it borrows from the idea that stress is created in chronically unsafe or hostile environments.”
The study, reported in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, examined data from the National Survey of American Life, a study of 5,899 American adults that collected data on, among other topics, mental health and experiences of discrimination from 3,570 African Americans (60.5 percent of the total study population), 1,438 Afro-Caribbeans (24.4 percent) and 891 non-Hispanic Whites (15.1 percent).
Of the African Americans surveyed, more than 40 percent reported they experienced some form of racial discrimination, and approximately 4.5 percent reported suffering from GAD. About 39 percent of Afro-Caribbeans reported examples of racial discrimination, but only 2.69 percent had ever developed GAD.
The experience of racial discrimination, however, was not associated with GAD for Afro-Caribbeans, perhaps because Afro-Caribbeans have a different history from African Americans, so they may define and manage racial discrimination differently.
While non-Hispanic whites had higher rates of generalized anxiety disorder than both African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans, only 7.79 percent of non-Hispanic whites reported incidents of racial discrimination.
Although experiences of racial discrimination among non-Hispanic whites were not associated with the development of GAD, experiencing other forms of discrimination, such as age and gender discrimination, was.
“One interesting finding from the study is that non-racial discrimination seems to be associated with the development of GAD for all three groups in the sample,” Soto says.
“About 49 percent of non-Hispanic whites said they suffered other forms of discrimination.”
The connection between racism and severe anxiety underscores the negative impact that discrimination has on society, Soto says.
“This is just one instance of how powerful social stressors can impact healthy functioning. I would suspect, if we could wave a wand and eliminate racism from our past and our present, we would also eliminate a lot of health disparities.”
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