University of Vienna: Racism and discrimination damage health

People with a migration background are often confronted with experiences of discrimination. Experiencing discrimination based on ethnic background is associated with stress and affects mental and physical health. A team led by psychologist Ricarda Nater-Mewes from the University of Vienna has now shown that the frequency of experiences of racism is related to physical stress indicators. The study was recently published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Experiences of ethnic discrimination often trigger an acute stress reaction in those affected. Stress reactions have several components, since in addition to the perceived stress, physiological processes are also taking place at the same time: the body reacts with a stress response (e.g. through an increased heart rate) and the stress hormone cortisol is released.

Imbalance in the body can lead to mental disorders and physical illnesses

Nater-Mewes explains: “When ethnic discrimination is experienced frequently or chronically, the body’s stress systems can become unbalanced due to the recurring stress. Such an imbalance can contribute to the development of mental disorders and physical illnesses. It is therefore important to to examine the potentially adverse health effects of ethnic discrimination on stress systems at multiple levels of observation.”

In a study recently published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, the authors were able to use a sample of men with a Turkish migration background to show that the frequency of experiences of racism is related to physical stress indicators. Two groups of Turkish migrants were examined in the study: people who state that they very often (chronically) experience discrimination and a second group of people who very rarely have such experiences. The participants did not differ from each other in any other way.

In the study, all participants then went through an interaction paradigm in the laboratory in which ethnic discrimination was triggered in a standardized way. The reaction to this discrimination was recorded with several stress indicators: the subjective perception of stress was recorded, the heart rate was measured and saliva and hair samples were taken. After the survey was completed, the researchers examined these samples for the biological stress indicator cortisol, among other things. All study participants were informed in detail about the study before their participation and agreed to participate. You could withdraw from the study at any time and seek support.

Study leader Andreas Goreis explains the key findings: “The analysis of the data showed that people who had experienced chronic discrimination reacted to the discrimination in the laboratory with a higher subjective level of stress and less cortisol in their saliva. Furthermore, the chronic group had a higher cortisol concentration in their hair However, heart rate and other indicators of the autonomic nervous system increased equally in both groups studied.”

The stress hormone cortisol can damage the immune system

Co-author Urs Nater interprets this as follows: “The results suggest that frequent experiences of discrimination can actually lead to an imbalance in the body’s own stress systems. In particular, changes in the stress hormone cortisol can have a damaging effect on the immune system and thus promote disease in the long term.”

This and other work by the research team promotes a fundamental understanding of the processes and mechanisms through which ethnic discrimination can have a negative impact on people with a migration background. Nater-Mewes states: “The results of these studies help us to develop tailor-made clinical-psychological and psychotherapeutic interventions. This is particularly relevant to promoting and maintaining the health of people with a migration background.”