When thinking about the effects of racism, a key variable to consider is that of stress. Stress usually refers to things that threaten or are perceived to threaten our well-being and therefore tax our coping abilities. This creates what is called an allostatic load – an overall “wear and tear” on the body that has very real physiological consequences (McEwan & Stellar, 1993). Because racism is a unique and often daily stressor, it leads to very real consequences on the bodies and souls of racialized folks everywhere.
Theorists have suggested two kinds of stressors: acute stressors, which are threatening events that have a relatively short duration and a clear endpoint, and chronic stressors, which are threatening events that have a relatively long duration and no apparent time limit. Both acute and chronic stressors can result in internal conflict, which is when two or more incompatible motivations or impulses compete for expression.
Conflicts have been described as coming in three types (Lewin, 1935): approach–approach conflict, which involves a choice between two attractive goals, and is least stressful; approach–avoidance conflict, which involves a choice about whether to pursue a single goal with both attractive and unattractive aspects , and can be quite stressful; and finally avoidance–avoidance conflict, which involves a choice between two unattractive goals, and is highly stressful.
Let’s think about the internal experience of racial trauma: because of the minority status of the person on the receiving end, when you are in that position you are forced to ask yourself - do I accept this discrimination and othering, or do I push back, when pushing back means not just against an individual, but against an entire structural edifice? Neither option is much fun, and if you have to face this every day, you will soon be exhausted. Which is, by the way, the whole point: to keep you exhausted.
Hans Selye (1956) proposed a theory of stress reactions described as the “General Adaptation Syndrome”. It involves three stages: alarm, whereby physiological arousal occurs and the body musters its resources to combat the challenge, then resistance, where physiological arousal remains higher than normal but may stabilize somewhat as coping efforts kick in, and finally, after some time, exhaustion, which occurs because the body’s resources for fighting stress are limited, and will become depleted. Now apply this to the life-long experience of racialized people, and you begin to understand the challenge we face.
Lewin, K. (1935). A Dynamic Theory of Personality. New York: McGraw-Hill.
McEwen, B. S. & Stellar, E. (1993). Stress and the individual. Mechanisms leading to disease. Archives of Internal Medicine. 153 (18): pp. 2093-101. doi:10.1001/archinte.153.18.2093
Selye H. (1956). The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
Thoughts on Therapy and Mental Health