According to startling new psychological research published in the current issue of the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, an increasing amount of data suggests that the chronic exposure to racial discrimination African-Americans encounter has an impact similar to the intense burdens shouldered by soldiers on the battlefield.
According to the Penn State researchers, “racial battle fatigue”—a term coined by William A. Smith, from the University of Utah—causes the same kinds of anxiety soldiers suffer when coming home from war—think of it kind of like a constant PTSD.
African-Americans who told researchers they’d faced more instances of racial discrimination were also more likely to suffer from general anxiety disorder (GAD) at some point in their lives. Though it sounds fairly benign, GAD has both physical and psychological symptoms, including constant worrying, difficulty concentrating, headaches 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,” said Jose Soto, who led the Penn State team. “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.”
Interestingly, while there was no correlation between whites with GAD and racial discrimination, there was a correlation with their GAD and other forms of prejudice, like ageism and sexism. Nearly half of whites surveyed said they felt some discrimination other than racial in their lives.
Soto says that his research underscores the idea that discrimination—racial or otherwise—is actually much more dangerous than many people realize.
“This is just one instance of how powerful social stressors can impact healthy functioning,” Soto said. “And 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.”