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Study: People Who Face Discrimination Have a Higher Risk of Anxiety

Black women feeling frustrated at work desk.

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study reveals that discrimination can be an important factor that increases the risk for psychiatric disorders, even after accounting for genetic risk.
  • Having a strong supportive network can be a valuable tool when dealing with discriminatory experiences.

Anxiety in the U.S. is by far the most common mental health condition, and it can range from a fleeting feeling of unease to a more serious, ongoing disorder. Researchers have long explored genes and environmental factors together in order to examine their effects on the risk of developing anxiety disorders.

In a recent study, scientists delved into the link between racism and anxiety, while taking into account those who may or may not have a genetic disposition to the disorder.

“Anxiety and related disorders are a huge public health issue in the United States," Adolfo G. Cuevas, PhD, an assistant professor of community health and director of the Psychosocial Determinants of Health Lab at Tufts’ School of Arts and Sciences, tells Verywell. "Researchers in the past have proposed exposure to discrimination to be a risk factor to poor mental health. However, one issue that remained unresolved is whether reports of discrimination are a byproduct of underlying genetic risk for anxiety. In other words, certain genes may affect our emotions and influence our alertness even to non-emotional and neutral events."

Cuevas and his colleagues were interested in exploring whether "reports of threatening and stressful environmental events, like discriminatory experiences, are a byproduct of genetic risks of anxiety and related disorders."

The researchers concluded that exposure to discrimination plays a large role in the risk of developing anxiety disorders, even after accounting for potential genetic risks. The November study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What This Means. For You

Experiencing discrimination can increase your risk of developing psychiatric disorders. If you're struggling with discrimination and anxiety in your daily life, consider reaching out to someone you trust and confide in them, whether it's a loved one or a healthcare provider.

The Study

For the study, the research team interviewed 1,500 adults between the ages of 25-74. Men and women were nearly equally represented.

Three criteria were used to measure discrimination and other forms of social exclusion:

  • Everyday discrimination, which researchers described as “being treated with less courtesy than other people” and “receiving poorer service than other people at restaurants or stores.”
  • Major discrimination, which researchers outlined as “discouraged by a teacher or advisor from seeking higher education” and “being prevented from renting or buying a home in the neighborhood you wanted.”
  • Chronic job discrimination, clarified by researchers as “being unfairly given the jobs that no one else wanted to do” and “whether your supervisor or boss use ethnic, racial, or sexual slurs or jokes.”

After controlling for increased genetic risk for anxiety, depression, and other factors, the researchers found a strong link between anxiety and discrimination in participants.

“This adds further evidence that reports of discrimination are real and should be taken seriously by clinicians, public health officials, and political leaders,” Cuevas says. “We need to address discrimination at the population level to improve mental health and reduce existing mental health disparities.”

Anxiety is also associated with chronic health conditions like heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. These conditions can start to take a toll on one's physical health beyond mental well-being.

Cuevas hopes the research will change the way we talk about discrimination and racism. “When people talk about discrimination it is not something that happens 'in their heads,'" Cuevas says. "These experiences are real and can have real health effects. We should be having more open conversations about how ways we can improve treatment and communication, as well as reduce existing health and social inequalities that plague the US.”

The Path Forward

It’s important for those who are experiencing racism to understand that feelings of anxiety are, unfortunately, normal. That doesn’t mean, however, that you have to experience these feelings alone.

“Having a strong supportive network has been shown to be a powerful tool to cope with discriminatory experiences," Cuevas says. "Someone who can listen and validate the experiences can really help alleviate some of the toxicity associated with the negative events like discrimination. Victims of discrimination should not internalize these events.

Consider reaching out to someone you trust to talk about your experiences. “A partner, friend, family member, or even neighbor can help remind the person that they belong to the community and are valued members of that community," Cuevas says. "Nevertheless, the burden shouldn’t fall on the victim of discrimination."

But beyond individual actions, Cuevas says reform at local and federal levels to curb discriminatory practices are the actions that can currently make the greatest difference.

"People in positions of power, such as political leaders and public health officials, should find effective ways to address the issues of stigma, racism, and other forms of discrimination," Cuevas says. "Addressing these issues at the policy level is the most effective way to reduce discrimination exposure and improve mental health at the population level.”

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Article Sources
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  1. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Facts & statistics.

  2. Cuevas A, Mann F, Williams D, Krueger R. Discrimination and anxiety: Using multiple polygenic scores to control for genetic liability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2020;118(1):e2017224118. doi:10.1073/pnas.2017224118

  3. Wiener A, Rohr C, Naor N, Villringer A, Okon-Singer H. Emotion regulation in essential hypertension: roles of anxiety, stress, and the pulvinar. Front Behav Neurosci. 2020;14. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2020.00080