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6 Types of Racism-Related Stress and Their Effects on Health and Mental Health

I have always felt lucky- and privileged- to have been born and raised in SF. My immigrant parents worked hard to send me to a private K-8 school, where the majority of the students looked like me. I didn’t even really begin to think about race and racism until high school, when I dated someone from a different ethnic and cultural background (who, btw, is now my husband!). Since then, I have become more aware and have intentionally focused my studies on issues around diversity and effects of racism. My dissertation examined how race-related stressors could lead to PTSD symptoms. While I completed this study approximately 6 years ago (!!), it feels all the more relevant given today’s sociopolitical landscape.

The effects of discrimination and race-related stress have been studied extensively and have been shown to have negative impacts on individuals’ health and psychological distress. For example, studies have found correlations between racism and depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, among other ailments. Because ethnic minorities are subjected to various forms and levels of racism, many are susceptible to lifelong exposure of racist experiences and as a result, have higher rates of poor health and mental health, experience multiple life event stressors, and receive little social support or recognition for their racist-based experiences.

6 Types of Racism-Related Stress (Harrell, 2000)

1. Racism-related life events- generally are time-limited events that are significant stressors and occur infrequently

  • being rejected for a loan

  • housing discrimination

2. Vicarious racism experiences- instances in which individuals may observe or hear about others’ experiences of racist experiences that cause instances emotional and psychological reactions (e.g., anxiety, anger, or sadness)

  • Learning about Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, etc

3. Daily racism experiences- microstressors which occur on a daily basis and serve as a reminder of one’s stimulus value. The accumulation of these types of incidents on a daily basis can contribute the overall stress an individual may experience, feelings of demoralization, dehumanization, disrespect, or objectification

  • ignored, treated rudely, or being followed

4. Chronic-contextual stress- stress that occurs as a result of social structure, institutional racism, and political decisions that impact the environment

  • disparities in resources, access to health and mental health care, living conditions, and quality of life

5. Collective experiences of racism- racism experienced in the cultural-symbolic and sociopolitical contexts are observed and felt on a group level

6. Transgenerational transmission of group trauma- effects of racism that are passed down from generation to generation

  • effects of slavery of African people or internment of Japanese Americans

Racism and PTSD

To understand how racism can lead to traumatic stress reactions (e.g., PTSD), racism must be conceptualized as a source of stress. Unlike other general stressors, the context in which racial discrimination occurs is pervasive, thus worsening the chronic nature of the stress. Victims of racial harassment may experience similar traumatic responses and the same difficulties as victims of other crime and traumatic events, particularly mild to severe PTSD symptoms. For example, one study* found that 75%-94% of those who reported experiencing racial harassment endorsed symptoms of re-experiencing, hypervigilance, arousal, avoidance, and intrusion symptoms, which are classic symptoms of PTSD.

Researchers Bryant-Davis and Ocampo (2005) contend racist incidents can be traumatic and affect victims similarly to victims of rape and domestic violence. They describe racist incidents, rape, and domestic violence to be parallel in several ways: motivation, effects, responses, secondary trauma, consequences for perpetrators, and societal responses.

  • Motivation- the motivation behind racist incidents, like rape incidents, is the drive for power.

  • Effect- Victims of rape, domestic violence, and racist incidents may experience symptoms of PTSD, including depression, anger, anxiety, fear, powerlessness, difficulties with memory, concentration, self-blame, shame, and somatic symptoms.

  • Response- responses to rape and racist incidents are similar in that some survivors use denial as a protective mechanism, or respond with numbness, shock, dissociation, or engage in self-harming behaviors (i.e., suicide, substance abuse).

  • Secondary trauma- rapes or racist incidents can lead to secondary trauma to individuals who hear about these incidents, and cause reactions such as denial, anger, sadness, and grief.

  • Characteristics of perpetrators- perpetrators of rape, sexual assaults, and racist incidents have similar characteristics, such as refusing to take responsibility for their behaviors and blaming the victims.

  • Societal Responses- incidents are not acknowledged, the effects are minimized, or victims are blamed or shamed for the occurrences.

Overt acts of racism appear to have risen in the last few years. Data from the FBI indicates reported hate crimes increased from 5,121 in 2016 to 7,175 in 2017, with over half of those reported crimes based on the victim's race. More than ever, we need to stand up to fight racism- the deleterious effects of racism is real and pervasive. There are interventions to help address racist behaviors, as well as treatment focused on healing racial trauma. Look out for more information in the next blog.


Bryant-Davis, T., & Ocampo, C. (2005). Racist incident-based trauma. The Counseling Psychologist, 33, 479-500. doi: 10.1177/0011000005276465

*Carter, R. T., Forsyth, J., Williams, B., & Mazzula, S. (2005). Racial discrimination and race-based traumatic stress. In R. T. Carter (Ed.), Handbook of racial-cultural psychology and counseling: Training and practice (Vol. 2, pp. 447-476). New York: Wiley.

Harrell, S. P. (2000). A multidimensional conceptualization of racism-related stress: Implications for the well-being of people of color. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 70(1), 42-57.


Hi, I’m Dr. Ivy and I help professionals who are questioning if their alcohol/drug use is a problem, or want to reduce or stop their alcohol/drug use.

I also help people who have grown up in chaotic environments, or experienced traumatic events, and have difficulties with finding safety and trust in the world and with other people.

Connect with me via email, Facebook, or Instagram!


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