Microaggressions Hurt Mental Health, a Therapist Says - Here's How to Cope and Create Change

Maggie Ryan

For many people of color, microaggressions are an ugly fact of life. "Microaggressions happen to people of color every day in America," therapist Katrina Pointer, LPC, told POPSUGAR. It can become exhausting, especially because systemic racism and biases are so deeply embedded in American life. And if you face frequent microaggressions, the effect on your mental health can be serious and painful, Pointer said, leading to feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and depression. While microaggressions impact people across marginalized groups, POPSUGAR spoke to Pointer about how they impact people of color specifically and her tips for coping and protecting your mental well-being.

What Are Microaggressions?

According to Pointer, microaggressions are best described as "disrespectful behavior motivated by race and behaviors that devalue any feelings and/or concerns of people of color." Lexico, a dictionary site by the Oxford University Press, further notes that microaggressions are "indirect, subtle, or unintentional" forms of discrimination. Despite their "micro" prefix, these acts and words can be powerful and harmful, with far-reaching effects on those they target.

Pointer said following a Black person in a store "or telling them they don't talk like they're Black" are both examples of microaggressions. Other examples she cited: telling a Latinx person they speak English well or asking an Asian-American person "where they are really from."

A person of color deals with these kinds of ignorant comments and assumptions daily, Pointer said, "whether it be at work, school, out shopping, or sometimes amongst their own group of friends." Many people participate in microaggressions without realizing it, she added, due to white privilege or lack of education about other cultures.

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How Do Microaggressions Affect Mental Health?

Imagine growing up and "trying to discover who you are and determine your own sense of self and value," Pointer said. "Now imagine attempting to do this while other people make assumptions about who you are and treat you as such, based only on the color of your skin, your last name, or your culture." When you live in this reality, the resulting feelings of inadequacy and the lack of self-love could cause anyone to feel depression and anxiety, Pointer said.

She added that people of color also face microaggressions at work or in other situations where speaking up could affect their family or livelihood. At that point, the stress could lead to uncomfortable symptoms like racing thoughts, poor sleep, or appetite changes, Pointer said, which can affect daily life.

How Can You Care For Your Mental Health If You Face Microaggressions?

Microaggressions can take a serious mental toll. If you're dealing with one in the moment, the first step is to process how you feel about what is being said, Pointer said, before deciding how you should respond. "It is important to not allow the feelings that it stirs up in you to overwhelm you and then trigger your mental health."

If you are feeling overwhelmed and triggered, "sometimes walking away could be more effective in the moment," Pointer said. However, she noted that people of color "are no longer in a position where we can continue to allow [a microaggression] to happen and not call it out." Walking away from one situation doesn't mean ignoring the issue; instead, she said, "Find a way to speak up at a point in time that you feel would be more effective."

In the workplace, for example, microaggressions can provoke stress and fear of losing employment. In this case, "addressing the issue by speaking up, reporting to the appropriate chain of command, or letting the person know that this is not OK can give you a sense of empowerment," Pointer explained. She also recommended finding other outlets to reduce stress and promote calm, such as yoga, exercise, or journaling. You can also seek the help of a mental health professional, such as a licensed therapist. This app connects people from marginalized communities to therapists from similar backgrounds, and if you're searching for a Black mental health professional, here's a list of 15 Black therapists currently practicing. There are also free mental health resources available across the country during the coronavirus pandemic.

At the end of the day, Pointer said, mental health comes first when it comes to dealing with microaggressions. "Coping mentally and emotionally is more important than trying to address and change someone's ignorance."

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