Chronic overactivation of the stress response (such as is a result of racism) can have damaging effects on many organ systems, undermining and disrupting the immune, hormonal and metabolic systems, for example (Kiecolt-Glaser & Glaser, 1995; Segerstrom & Miller, 2004; Mikkonen & Raphael, 2010). It is implicated in acute cardiac symptoms, increases in inflammation (contributing to cardiovascular risk), rheumatoid arthritis, back pain, diabetes, herpes, and irritable bowel syndrome to name but a few issues (Baker, Suchday, & Krantz, 2007; Blanchard & Keefer, 2003; Kop et al., 2008; Davis et al., 2008; Lampe et al., 1998; Landel-Graham, Yount, & Rudnicki, 2003; Padgett & Sheridan, 2000).
There are also effects on the brain: Van der Kolk (2015) argues that there are three major ways that the brain changes as a response to trauma, with the fear centre becoming oversensitive, our ability to filter out what is relevant from what isn’t becoming compromised, and the part of the brain responsible for how we experience the world changing, too.
Stress can also interfere with neurogenesis, which is the formation of new neurons, primarily in key areas in the hypothalamus, which enhances learning and memory. In fact, suppressed neurogenesis may be a key component of depression. People with histories of trauma often have abnormalities in the hippocampus, the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex and changes to the autonomic nervous system (Dranovsky & Hen, 2006; McEwan, 2009; Pal & Elbers, 2018).
Trauma can also effect epigenetics; it changes the way DNA is expressed, and these changes can be passed on to the next generations, which can affect how the children and grandchildren of trauma survivors react to stress, adapt to various environments, their vulnerability to certain illnesses and even their mortality (Avramova, 2015; Mangassarian, 2016). Apply this to the multi-generational experience of racism, and you get a heart-breaking picture of what happens to our communities.
Avramova, Z. (2015). Transcriptional 'memory' of a stress: Transient chromatin and memory (epigenetic) marks at stress-response genes. Plant Journal, 83(1), 149-159. https://doi.org/10.1111/tpj.12832
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Landel-Graham, J., Yount, S. E., & Rudnicki, S. R. (2003). Diabetes mellitus. In A. M. Nezu, C. M. Nezu, & P. A. Geller (Eds.). Handbook of psychology (Vol. 9): Health psychology. New York: Wiley.
Mangassarian, S. (2016). 100 Years of Trauma: the Armenian Genocide and Intergenerational Cultural Trauma. Journal of Aggression Maltreatment & Trauma, 25 (4), pp. 1-11. doi:10.1080/10926771.2015.1121191
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Mikkonen, J., & Raphael, D. (2010). Social determinants of health: The Canadian facts. Toronto: York University School of Health Policy and Management.
Padgett, D. A., & Sheridan, J. F. (2000). Herpes viruses. In G. Fink (Ed.), Encyclopedia of stress (pp. 357–363). San Diego: Academic Press.
Pal, R., & Elbers, J. (2018). Neuroplasticity: The Other Side of the Coin. Pediatric Neurology, 84, 3–4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pediatrneurol.2018.03.009
Segerstrom, S. C., & Miller, G. E. (2004). Psychological stress and the human immune system: A meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 601–630.
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, New York: Penguin Books.
Thoughts on Therapy and Mental Health