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.
This tyranny of silence led the actress Taraji P. Henson to found the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation. Named for her late father, a Vietnam veteran who suffered mental health challenges as a result of his wartime experience, the foundation has multiple related missions, including encouraging the training of African-American therapists, supporting mental health in urban schools, reducing prison recidivism, and encouraging black Americans with mental health issues to speak up and seek help.
At the same time, studies such as “The Geography of Desperation in America,” a 2017 report by the Brookings Institution, have found that while poor racial minorities often face worse poverty-related challenges than do poor non-Hispanic whites, they are significantly more optimistic about the future and commit suicide less.
What are some of the sources of this kind of resiliency among black Americans? Non-economic resources — such as connection to family, social support, and religion — are all key to maintaining a healthy physical and mental response to stress, according to McEwen.
“Tolerable stress, what I call allostatic load, can be an acute life event — the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, an accident, things that make a person feel a loss of a sense of control,” McEwen says. “The events may be severe, but if you have a good sense of internal support, good self-esteem, and external social and emotional support, you can weather the storm.”
Aspirations — or expectations — may also matter. As the Brookings report notes, “Poor blacks and Hispanics tend to report they are better off than their parents were, while many blue-collar whites are facing a reality of downward mobility” as jobs go extinct and family structures weaken.
Not all minority or marginalized groups possess supportive resources. In our survey, for instance, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) community appears to be highly stressed.
Arline T. Geronimus, doctor of science, a professor in the school of public health and a research professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, says this isn’t surprising. Dr. Geronimus’s “weathering” theory addresses both the corrosive and the strength-building aspects of adversity in marginalized groups.
LGBTQ people, unlike the black American population, are not generally raised from birth with a strong sense of LGBTQ identity or community, Geronimus says. Nor do they have generations of pooled adaptive responses passed on to them by their families to build resilience to homophobia, per se. “LGBTQ individuals have to find or build community on their own,” she says. “They also have to engage in the labor of constructing a positive identity and an alternative cultural framework to the dominant one in which they are marginalized.”
Unfortunately, Assari has found, marginalized communities — even those who have a culture of coping — are at risk of losing some of their resilience when some of their circumstances change for the better. In his study, as black Americans experience economic gains, they don’t retain as much resilience, says Assari. That may be because upwardly mobile blacks tend to move to white neighborhoods where resilience is often tempered by distance from family and social support, such as their church, as well as, often, a new stressor: more frequent exposure to racism.
To resolve these issues, Assari says, society must change how it treats minorities.
Says Geronimus: “When facing chronic, toxic stressors, resilience alone is not a panacea. Resilience requires physiological coping and comes at a disproportionate cost to health for individuals in marginalized communities. We should strengthen the institutions and societal elements that help us mentally and emotionally weather adversity, while eliminating those that weather, or eat away at, our health.”