We all understand stress to be harmful, but to what degree? Many of us suffer from the exhaustion that comes with stress, as well as its negative effect on our mood, but it doesn’t end there. Stress can also lead to heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. And according to a new report, there may be a particular group of individuals who understand these severe effects better than anyone else.

This report from the American Psychological Association says that minority populations and people with low incomes experience higher stress levels than their richer, white counterparts—this can result in significant mental and physical health differences, which ultimately affect life expectancy. Elizabeth Brondolo, PhD, who was involved with writing the report, explained its assertions: “Good health is not equally distributed. Socio-economic status, race, and ethnicity affect health status and are associated with substantial disparities in health outcomes across the lifespan. And stress is one of the top 10 social determinants of health inequities.”

According to the report, people with lower incomes detail more severe (though not more frequent) stress than others, as well as having experienced more traumatic events in their childhood. Additionally, African Americans and U.S.-born Hispanics report more stress than their white counterparts, which are rooted partly in discrimination and a tendency to experience more violent traumatic events. Ultimately, these heightened levels of stress can lead to mental and physical health problems, which are estimated to cost the U.S. over $300 billion per year thanks to accidents, absenteeism, lower productivity, and employee turnover.

Brondolo further explains the significant and severe effects stress can have on an individual’s mental health: “Stress affects how we perceive and react to the outside world. Low socio-economic status has been associated with negative thinking about oneself and the world, including low self-esteem, distrust of the intentions of others and the perceptions that the world is a threatening place and life has little meaning. Stress is also known to contribute to depression.”

As previously mentioned, stress may also result in physical health disparities by affecting one’s behavior. Many studies have shown a link between high levels of stress and a multitude of negative health behaviors, such as smoking, drinking, drug use, and physical inactivity. These behaviors and their subsequent negative outcomes (such as obesity) are closely associated with the development and progression of many illnesses: these include diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and cognitive decline.

The report goes on to list various interventions that may be useful in improving the negative effects stress has on low-income and minority populations. For example, at the individual level, mind-body interventions like meditation have proven to successfully improve mental and physical health in disadvantaged groups. Additionally, simply improving communication between these patients and their health care providers could also elicit positive change.

In conclusion, the report says additional multidisciplinary research regarding health barriers for the disadvantaged and underprivileged is needed. It also calls for improvements to be made in psychology training programs to ensure clinicians are equipped to discuss and address the effects of inequality on one’s health sufficiently. Furthermore, it is vital we continue the conversation about stress and its harmful effects, especially on low-income communities and minorities.

“Disparities in both stress and health may not be visible to those who have more advantages or who have relatively limited direct contact with those affected. A well-informed community is critical to improving the health of racial/ethnic and poor communities,” Brondolo explained.

American Psychological Association. (2018, January 8). Higher Stress Among Minority and Low-Income Populations Can Lead to Health Disparities, Says Report. [Press Release]. Retrieved on January 8. 2018, from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2018/01/stress-minority-income.aspx