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Mental wellness: Microaggressions lead to health issues, says UBC expert

People who experience microaggressions tend to have serious health and sleep problems, as well as higher levels of inflammation, said Nancy Sin
Nancy Sin UBC
Nancy Sin, an assistant psychology professor at UBC, said microaggressions can "eat away at a person."

A UBC researcher is hoping to better understand the impacts of discrimination on mental health.

Discrimination can have widespread impacts in society as well as implications for mental health and social well-being, said Nancy Sin of the UBC UPLIFT Health Lab and assistant professor in the university's Department of Psychology.

Sin said her current focus is on experiences of “everyday discrimination” and in particular, microaggressions.

“The reason I focus on microaggressions is because they happen frequently in our lives,” said Sin.

While a major form of discrimination, such a being passed over for a promotion or not being hired for a job because of race, gender or age, may not happen to a particular person every day, they may near daily experience more subtle microaggressions, which can “eat away at a person.”

“For Asian Canadians, this might be as subtle as asking, what country are you from or where are you really from, or (saying) your English is so good,” Sin said.

“Other people might not be aware that those comments or questions can make a person feel as though they are a perpetual foreigner, that they don’t belong. So, in some ways, these microaggressions — they eat away at a person because they always remind a person that they don’t belong in society, or at least they don’t kind of get that sense of belonging.”

What is also harmful about microaggressions is their ambiguity — people may not always know the intent or whether someone meant to make you feel bad, she said.

“So when people face these experiences, these microaggressions, they might spent a lot of time thinking it over in their head, kind of analyzing it. It causes these feelings of anxiety that really linger, and that’s one of the reasons why these experiences have been shown to impact a person’s emotions for quite a while, even after that experience, after that particular event has passed,” Sin said.

“I think it can be really harmful as well for relationships, for having good, healthy workplaces and society.”

Sin said research has shown that people who experience microaggressions tend to have serious health and sleep problems, as well as higher levels of inflammation.

“We believe that it could be due to the increased stress and physiological reactivity that’s being repeated time and time again, whenever people are facing these microaggressions. So we do know that having poor sleep and having elevated inflammation, those are the pathways that set the stage for a whole host of medical conditions,” Sin said, noting this includes an increased risk of metabolic problems, for heart disease and premature death.

During a 2020 study on COVID-19 and mental health, Sin said she and her team found that “everyday discrimination is happening frequently.”

Participants in that study who identified as members of ethnic or racial minorities also were more likely to report increased or worsening instances of everyday discrimination during the pandemic, Sin said.

“(That) has impacts on a person’s health and their emotional well-being,” said Sin. “We found in our previous work on discrimination that on days when people experience discrimination, on those days, they have an increase in their physical symptoms and an increase in their negative emotion.”

What is encouraging, however, is that if people reported facing discrimination and something positive happening on the same day — such as lunch with a friend, going for a walk or engaging in a hobby — that “really helps to bolster from the otherwise negative emotional impacts,” said Sin.

While it can be helpful for people facing discrimination to reach out for support, Sin said it’s also important “that we don’t put the burden of dealing with discrimination on the people who are being targeted.”

“Obviously, we need to think about solutions at a more systemic level. But I do think that there are these opportunities at various levels from the individual, in terms of our workplaces, and in terms of society more broadly. We can think of more ways to intervene and to reduce the burden of discrimination.”