Microaggressions: How and why do they impact health?

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People’s physical and mental health is influenced by a large and diverse array of factors. But how can the attitudes of other people affect individuals’ well-being? In this Special Feature, we examine the impact that microaggressions have on health.

Prof. Derald Wing Sue — a leading psychologist at Columbia University — and his collaborators give the definition of microaggressions as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”

The origin of the term “microaggression” dates back to the 1970s, and was coined by African American Harvard University psychiatrist Chester Pierce, specifically in relation to race. Since then it has expanded to include other marginalized groups including women, LGBTQIA+ people, religious minorities, people with disabilities, and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Microaggressions may be a result of conscious bias, but they can also reveal unconscious prejudices. Oftentimes a person may deliver a microaggression without consciously admitting that the attitude expressed by their words or actions is discriminatory. Emerging research suggests that, like more explicit forms of discrimination, this covert type of discrimination has concrete negative impacts on the health of those at the receiving end.

Chronic exposure to microaggressions can have both a direct impact on health, and an indirect impact when it occurs within a system of healthcare. Find encouragement and support through one-on-one messaging, live chats led by a guide, and advice from others dealing with depression.

When a person experiences stress, it can lead to physiological responses, including elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, and the secretion of certain hormones, such as cortisol. Discrimination is a social stressor and it acts on the body in the same way. One impact of this increased stress response was revealed in a studyTrusted Source on racial differences in sleep. African American participants who reported experiencing more discrimination achieved less deep slow-wave sleep — the deep state of sleep associated with rest.

Sleep is critical for the healthy physiological functioning of the body, including the immune system, hormone systems, and mental function.

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