Resilient to Stressors, but at What Cost?
Judging from the responses to our survey questions, one thing was clear: Black Americans were notably more resilient to stress than “white only” and “Hispanic” respondents. In fact, compared with “white only” and “Hispanic” survey participants, black Americans were much more likely to report not being stressed. They also appeared to be more successful at managing their stress than the other two groups, and more likely to say that stress motivated them to make life changes.
We wondered about these results, especially knowing that white Americans live an average of 3.6 years longer than black Americans, and that black Americans are at higher risk for chronic health conditions such as hypertension, stroke, obesity, heart disease, and cancer than other racial and ethnic groups. Health conditions, as we know, are themselves stressful. How could this population face all that and yet seem to be the least stressed out of all?
Then we learned about the work of researchers such as Shervin Assari, MD, MPH, a research assistant professor of psychiatry and public health at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Dr. Assari has published more than two dozen papers on black resilience, and he says our survey results are in line with his.
Assari’s research suggests that while white Americans, on average, are physically the “healthiest" group, they are also, on average, less “resilient” — that is, less able to “successfully adapt to life tasks in the face of highly adverse conditions” than black Americans.
One reason, Assari says, is that white Americans are less prepared to cope with adversity because they have less experience with it. By contrast, minority groups in the United States have consistently lived under adverse economic and social conditions — exposed to a disproportionate share of adverse childhood experiences and the weathering effects of hardship, with chronic stressors such as racism leading to sustained, high-effort coping and, subsequently, internal wear and tear.
These firsthand experiences may have taken a toll on the health of African-Americans, but they also may have engendered a belief in the ability to handle new stressors, Assari says.
Of course, the interplay between chronic stress and race-ethnicity is complicated. There has been research, for example, on the transmission of stress between generations and on depression as it may manifest differently in African-American men. Some research — and many personal testimonials — also suggest that black Americans are less likely to report symptoms of mental illness.