Microaggressions: Impact on Mental Health

By Sydney Wiederhold|Updated July 29, 2022

Mental health includes a person’s emotional, behavioral, and psychological well-being and can be affected by a wide variety of factors. Life experiences, brain chemistry, genetics, and lifestyle can all influence how someone thinks, feels, makes choices, and communicates with other people. The actions, choices, and attitudes of other people can also affect an individual’s well-being for better or for worse. Microaggressions, defined in the simplest terms as everyday verbal or nonverbal insults, can have a negative impact on the mental health of those belonging to minority groups. Minorities face a unique challenge when trying to maintain positive mental health because of the discrimination, harassment, and racism present in their everyday life. It can be difficult enough to stay mentally healthy without these added factors. Learning about microaggressions is vital to recognizing, addressing, and responding to them. 

Protecting Your Mental Health Is Important

Microaggression Theory: Where Microaggressions Come From

The term microaggression comes from Harvard psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce. The word was coined in 1970 and referred to Pierce’s observations of insults and slights directed at people of color by those who aren’t. Microaggression theory states that people who are disadvantaged in some way or belong to a minority group are the most susceptible to these insults. 

Microaggression Defined

Microaggressions are sometimes referred to as insults, assumptions, putdowns, or implicit biases. Those belonging to minority groups are most targeted by them. People of color, those in the LGBTQ+ community, older people, religious groups, people with disabilities, and more can all be affected. 

A microaggression can be subtle or overt, intentional or unintentional, and verbal or nonverbal. No matter how they present, though, they are still hurtful. The different types of microaggressions are microassaults, microinvalidations, and microinsults. Each is explored in more detail below:

  1. Microassaults: Microassaults describe those snubs, slights, or insults that people use intentionally to hurt someone else. They might call their target names, purposefully leave them out, or harass them in a discriminatory manner. Examples of microassaults are abusive language or epithets, racial profiling, or blocking someone’s entry into an event or business based on their identity or group membership.  

  2. Microinvalidations: Microinvalidations are instances in which someone’s experience as an underrepresented minority is downplayed, discredited, or shut out altogether. For example, someone might claim that racism no longer exists or that they don’t see color. An employer may say that everyone had an equal opportunity for a position based on their qualifications alone. Microinvalidations are one of the most common types of microaggressions and seem to occur most when people aren’t listening or trying to understand a perspective that differs from theirs. 

  3. Microinsults: Microinsults are characterized by rude, demeaning, or insensitive comments that someone makes toward a person’s identity. They can also include nonverbal communication. These microaggressions are hardest to identify because they tend to be subtle. Microinsults are largely based on assumptions about people who belong to certain underrepresented groups. For example, someone might credit a person of color’s acceptance into a program as merely a result of affirmative action, rather than the hard work they put in. Someone might be assumed to be very intelligent based only on their race or labeled a criminal because of the group they belong to. 

Microaggressions come in all shapes and sizes, but each of them can be very hurtful. Although not every insult, assumption, or stare is intentional, it doesn’t minimize the very real damage that can follow. Even subtle slights can be just as damaging as overt harassment, whether verbal or nonverbal. It can be difficult for people who aren’t affected by microaggressions to recognize how their unintentional comments or actions can harm others. However, it’s necessary to continue to learn about these things in order to approach certain people and situations with more perspective, understanding, and sensitivity. 

Examples of Microaggressions 

Microaggressive behaviors are directed toward people who belong to certain underrepresented or disadvantaged groups. Here are some examples of microaggressions you may see in your workplace, at school, or out in public:

  • Asking a person of color how they got into a certain program or school implies they don’t have the qualifications or intelligence to get there on their own merit. 

  • Asking someone where they’re from simply because of their accent suggests they’re a foreigner in their own country. 

  • Telling someone you don’t see color minimizes their experience as a person of color. 

  • Locking your car as soon as you see a person of color implies that they are dangerous simply because of their racial identity. 

  • Television shows that only feature white people can suggest that others aren’t as important or don’t belong. 

  • Telling someone to be less flamboyant as a male implies that they need to conform to what’s acceptable in the dominant culture. 

  • Not involving an older coworker in a work meeting tells them their opinion isn’t as important because of their identity. 

If someone gives you a micro-aggression example they have experienced, it’s important to take their word for it and practice empathy. Trying to diminish, downplay, or minimize their experiences can potentially cause even more harm. When you don’t try to understand or see a different perspective, it can communicate that you don’t see, hear, or care for the person. By showing concern and care, you can help comfort that person and reassurance them that their experience is valid.

Mental Health Effects of Microaggressions

Microaggressions can take a toll on an individual’s mental health. Some people experience them more often than others, making their effect even more impactful. Some of the potential negative effects microaggressions can have on someone’s mental health include: 

  • Loss of confidence
  • Confusion 
  • Depression
  • Sleep issues
  • Lower productivity
  • Anxiety
  • Exhaustion or fatigue 
  • Lower self-esteem
  • Anger 
  • Higher stress levels 
  • No motivation to go to work or school
  • Hopelessness 
  • Suicidal thoughts 

If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 and is available 24/7.

Since many disadvantaged groups already have extra obstacles that they have to get past, microaggressions can make it even harder to cope with daily life. Microaggressions are so commonplace that there’s never a break from them. Even when someone isn’t immediately being subjected to one, the effects from previous experiences linger on. When someone is dealing with the mental health effects of microaggressions, they may go on to develop physical side effects as well such as headaches, insomnia, or high blood pressure. The result is lower functioning overall, making it more difficult to get through the day-to-day intricacies of life. 

Disparities in Mental Health Care

Minority groups are still subject to the same mental health problems other people face (and additional ones that are unique to them), yet they face disparities that make it harder to get care. Once they do receive care, it’s often of lower quality. They also go through situations and experiences other groups don’t have to deal with, such as being subject to microaggressions. 

Vulnerable populations are less likely to get the mental health care they need for a variety of factors. Vulnerable populations include ethnic minorities, the elderly, those of low socioeconomic status, people belonging to the LGBTQ+ community, certain religious circles, people with disabilities, and more. Research shows that these groups often have a lack of resources, receive a lower quality of care, are more likely to live in poverty, and receive fewer educational opportunities. Reasons for these disparities include the stigma of mental health problems, discrimination, systemic racism, lack of awareness, geographical obstacles, and providers who don’t understand the challenges these groups face. 

By combatting microaggressions and working to address the disparities that exist in the mental health care system, we can hope to see positive system-wide change. Although these disparities have existed for decades and there’s still a lot of work to be done, steps are already being taken to help improve the lives of disadvantaged groups. Moving forward, addressing the inequalities in the healthcare system and working to improve public perception are two vital factors for improving access to quality mental health care for everyone. 

Being Conscious of and Addressing Microaggressions

Microaggressions can be hard to spot, especially if you aren’t familiar with them. That being said, those belonging to minority groups are more used to noticing them because they often experience them daily. So, in general, you can recognize microaggressions most readily when they’re directed at you. However, the more familiar you are with the different themes of microaggressions, the more likely you are to spot them. If you see or hear something that sounds directed at someone belonging to a minority group, it could be a microaggression. 

Even if someone isn't trying to be intentionally hurtful, they can still perpetuate harmful statements or other nonverbal communications. If you hear or experience a microaggression, you can react in one of three ways:

  1. Brush it off. If you’re experiencing microaggressions on a regular basis, calling them out each time may not be practical. It can also be downright exhausting. Sometimes it’s better for your mental health to let it go rather than engage with the person who said or did something offensive. 

  2. Respond right away. If the moment is right, you can address a microaggression right then and there. Just make sure you’re in a safe environment, as some people can become reactive or defensive once confronted. Sometimes correcting someone’s statements or actions can help them learn so they don’t make the same mistake in the future. Other times it makes the situation worse, so you’ll need to use your judgment. In general, people who make unintentional hurtful statements don’t mind being corrected and appreciate the opportunity to grow. 

  3. Come back to it later. The moment may not be right to respond right now, but that doesn’t mean you have to let it go forever. Sometimes you may need to collect your thoughts or think more about a situation to gain clarity. Taking time to yourself is important self-care, but also allows you to respond in a more tempered manner. The risk of bringing something up later is that microaggressor may not recall the situation or might feel the target of the insult was holding onto something they didn’t mean to be hurtful. However, it’s still important to address the situation so it doesn’t happen again. Don’t allow yourself to be gaslit or talked out of your feelings, because they are still valid and matter. 

The more society can recognize microaggressions, the better we can respond to them. Realizing that microaggressions exist everywhere is an important step in this process. Although something might seem small, meaningless, or unintentional, that doesn’t eliminate the harm it can cause. One of the most important things you can do as an individual is comfort and validate those who have been targeted by microaggressions. Even if you can’t put a stop to the slights, insults, and snubs that are causing them harm, you can still be a source of positivity and encouragement when they’re feeling down. It’s important that those who are subjected to microaggressions have trusted people they can turn to. You can do your part by being one of those people in their corner. 

Looking After Yourself

Self-care is a critical part of maintaining positive mental health, especially as a minority. You may experience daily fatigue and stress from microaggressions, harassment, and other forms of discrimination. This can be exhausting, which is why prioritizing yourself is so vital. Whether you’re going through something difficult or aren’t having a particularly hard time right now, it’s never a bad time to take care of yourself. Prevention is key, and it’s better to work on your mental well-being now than wait until you’re feeling really down. Here are some ways you can look after your mental health daily and in the long run:

  • Take breaks throughout the day. Western culture specifically is concerned with “hustling” and always being productive and busy. However, that can actually be mentally draining and bad for your health. Try to take little breaks here and there throughout the day to collect your thoughts, sit in silence, and relax. Even if it’s just five minutes to recoup, it can make a difference. 

  • Lean on your support system. Friends and family members who can relate to you can provide comfort, advice, and support when you need it most. Not everyone will be able to understand you, even if they mean well. Find people that you can truly rely on and who know what it’s like to be in your shoes. Then, turn to them in times of need. 

  • Assess situations before entering them. Throughout your day, pause and consider whether an experience or situation is going to hurt or help you and your mental health. For example, if you know walking into a room of people is going to trigger you (for any reason), it’s okay not to enter that room and to prioritize your feelings instead. You aren’t being selfish; you are protecting your well-being. 

Each of these things can improve your mental health over time and help you build confidence in yourself. Over time, little changes can become permanent habits that you barely have to think about anymore. Keep in mind that everyone needs something different to maintain a positive state of mind and stay healthy. If you’re trying to feel better on your own, but you feel your mental state worsening or not improving, it may be time to see a professional. 

Protecting Your Mental Health Is Important

Need Extra Help? 

Navigating the world as a minority can present some unique challenges. You may be used to handling everything on your own, but you shouldn’t have to. Whether you need to work through a specific issue, cope with a trauma, or just want someone to talk to about life, therapy could be a helpful option to consider. BetterHelp is a platform that provides mental health services entirely online. If you have a busy schedule, are concerned about being able to afford therapy, or live in a rural area, BetterHelp might be the best choice for you. 

Once you sign up on the platform and get connected with a therapist, you can chat using a messaging feature, a video call, or a phone call. Therapy is important to have access to no matter who you are or what you’re going through. If you’d like to give it a try, don’t hesitate to reach out to BetterHelp right away. We are here to help.

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