Anti-racism and racial equity

Tracking Real-Time Physiological Reactions to Racism

Bridget Goosby

Studies link the stress of racism to higher rates of chronic illnesses among people of color.

An interdisciplinary team of Nebraska and Texas researchers is one of the first to demonstrate the physiological responses connecting racism and health outcomes in real time.

“Our findings build on previous research and add to it by showing how racism affects the body’s stress process in real time, in the real world,” said Bridget Goosby, a University of Texas sociology professor who co-led the study while at Nebraska.

The team measured the sympathetic nervous response – part of the body’s fight or flight reflex – of college students who experienced race-based microaggressions, witnessed racism or ruminated on racism. The study involved 100 students: African Americans, Latinos, refugees and international students from Africa.

Researchers found all but refugees experienced elevated stress responses to various experiences related to racism.

Sympathetic nervous response is the first in a cascade of symptoms that lead to wear and tear on the body, Goosby said.

Over time, that physiological damage leads to chronic ailments, such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, many of which disproportionately affect minority groups.

When someone’s fight or flight response kicks in, they sweat. For two weeks in fall 2016 and a week in spring 2017, students wore wrist sensors that measured changes in their skin’s electrical conduction — how much they sweat. Participants also completed surveys throughout the day to report stress-triggering events, along with other measures like mood and social activities. The team matched participants’ physical reactions to their experiences of racism.

Our findings build on previous research and add to it by showing how racism affects the body’s stress process in real time, in the real world.

Bridget Goosby

Elevated stress responses occurred in African Americans and Latinos when they personally experienced racism, and in Latinos and African immigrants when they thought deeply about racial injustice.

African immigrants experienced an elevated stress response to witnessing racism, while Latinos had a suppressed response, possibly reflecting fatigue at the political rhetoric occurring at the time.

Refugee students were less likely to report negative emotions and race-related stress, possibly because belonging to a close-knit community is protective.

The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

+ Additional content for Tracking Real-Time Physiological Reactions to Racism

Nebraska news release: New study shows real-time stress reaction to racism