Weathering Is One More Thing That’s Killing Black People

This year, 2020, is the gift that keeps on giving in the worst way possible, and the Black community is bearing the brunt of the bad news. Not only are we experiencing a disproportionate amount of deaths from COVID-19, but the guilty-until-proven-innocent media trials of Black people who’ve lost their lives are putting us over the edge. Many of these deaths have been captured on camera.

Viral footage of Black people dying at the hands of police officers and vigilantes shows the worst-case scenario of racial profiling. And yet, as jaded and traumatized as we are, we are taking to the streets and social media, continuing what seems like a never-ending quest for racial equality, equity, and justice. And we’re tired of constantly dealing with the physiological effects of this trauma.

The effects of this can actually be measured through allostatic load, which is a metric used to quantify the accumulation of chronic stress-related health effects in the body. “The body is always trying to maintain balance, and the term allostasis is used to describe this process for buffering the stress response, which may be activated by [something] psychological, like discrimination, or environmental, like light exposure during the sleep cycle,” Olivia Affuso, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, tells SELF. As SELF previously reported, experts can calculate a person’s allostatic load with various lab tests.

Stress can affect anyone’s body, but Black people have a higher allostatic load score than white people, according to research published in the Journal of National Medical Association. Research also points to racism as a culprit, and this has been problematic long before social media amplified racial trauma to a viral level. This concept is also known as weathering.

The term weathering refers to the way the constant stress of racism can lead to premature biological aging and worse health outcomes for Black people, as SELF previously reported. It was first coined by Arline Geronimus, Sc.D, professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, and member of the National Academy of Medicine, in her landmark 1992 Ethnicity & Disease hypothesis. The signs of weathering can be emotional, physical, and behavioral, says Affuso.

When an individual faces repeated or chronic exposure to stress, it can result in a higher allostatic load. One consequence of this increased stress is higher cortisol levels from being in a constant state of fight-or-flight. Over time this chronic stress response can contribute to a vast array of negative health outcomes, from depression and migraines to hypertension and heart disease. Daily occurrences of microaggressions, residual effects of intergenerational trauma, and blatant acts of racism are all harmful to the health of people of color. In the U.S., Black people die at a disproportionately high rate from most cancers as well as heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

Addressing the factors that contribute to weathering will require systemic changes. In the meantime, Black people are overdue for some radical self-care. There are things you can do to manage the chronic stress that you are likely experiencing—the chronic stress that can lead to a higher allostatic load and the health implications we’ve already mentioned. We asked the experts for their suggestions for alleviating that undue burden, in both big and small ways.

One way to counteract stress is through a regular exercise routine, explains Affuso. As an avid ultrarunner, she understands the catharsis of movement and says that research touts the benefits of walking, running, tai chi, and yoga. Even short bouts of activity can improve symptoms of stress.

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