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The Brain Reacts to Racism by Experiencing Pain

What interventions could offset racist bullying?

Key points

  • Neurobiological research shows the pain infused reaction brains have to racism.
  • Racism's repeated blows to neurobiology come from individuals, employers, culture, politics, and society.
  • Chronic pain is unbearable and one way to lessen it is through mechanisms that lessen racist impulses.

Racism is an intense and extensive form of bullying with an appalling history attached to it, and it continues today as one of the most insidious and damaging forms of bullying behavior. Like all bullying, racism uses power and privilege. It strives to dominate and take over resources. It justifies itself based on beliefs, not facts. It benefits the in-group and strips the out-group of their rights and even their humanity. The beneficiaries might not act, but they remain bystanders who gain protection, who align with power, and who maintain esteem and status regardless of the injustice or suffering of those targeted.

Targets of bullying – whether it’s due to racism or any other impulse to harm – are put in an out-group, objectified, dehumanized, and considered not deserving of empathy according to perpetrators and the systems that all too often enable them. Extensive neurobiological research shows that this repeat rejection and social exclusion causes chronic pain.

Social and Physical Pain Are Bi-Directional

In my book The Bullied Brain, the catalyst for studying research on the way in which abusive behavior impacts the brain was misogyny and homophobia. Extensive research documents the way in which exposure to this kind of bullying causes social and physical pain, which are inseparable from a brain perspective. Likewise, extensive research reveals the way in which exposure to racist bullying causes social and physical pain, which are inseparable from a brain perspective.

For racism to cause targets to live with chronic pain, it must be active. It requires beliefs, words, actions, interventions, and interruptions ranging from micro-aggressions to full-on violations that all amount to layers and layers of pain. Bullying and abuse focus on individual or institutional behaviors. Racism is far more severe in that it is not only experienced on the individual and institutional levels, but it can also be on a cultural level (media, entertainment, art, and literature), as well as a collective level (education, employment, health, and treatment in the criminal justice system), and it can involve sociopolitical racism (political decisions and legislative processes).

In order to relieve this individual, collective, and social pain and alleviate it, there needs to be at the very minimum an equal response. When we look at the impact of racist bullying through a neurobiological lens, and especially understand how it’s physically harming the brain and causing chronic pain, then diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are not only attempts to establish some kind of reparative justice, they are pain-killers. They are medicine.

If you’ve ever crawled into bed, drapes drawn, with a migraine, suffered the agony of a broken bone, or thought you might lose your mind due to the dull aching of an infected tooth, you know the desperate quest for something, anything, to relieve the pain. Now imagine that this pain was a daily occurrence and when you sought help from medical experts, it was misunderstood and made worse rather than lessened.

Racism’s Impact on the Brain

20926038 / Pixabay
DEI could help alleviate the chronic pain of racism
Source: 20926038 / Pixabay

In 2022, in the article “The Neurobiology of Social Stress Resulting from Racism,” three psychologists and a sociologist reviewed extensive studies over the past fifty years that document the way “negative emotions can cause a human being to experience pain irrespective of the presence of actual or potential tissue damage” and apply this scientific insight to racist experiences. The researchers note that in recent years, it has become clear that the “experience of pain and negative emotions reinforce each other in humans and involve activation of the same brain structures.”

More specifically, the writers cite recent research showing that “experiences of racial discrimination activate many of the same brain regions that are implicated in the affective-motivational processing (i.e., unpleasantness) of physical pain, and more recently, also the sensory-discriminative processing (i.e., intensity) of physical pain.” They draw on extensive neurobiological research to chart the way in which racial discrimination is “associated with increased clinical pain severity, increased experimental pain sensitivity, and increased pain catastrophizing” among targets.

In 2020, they noted that the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) updated the definition of pain to reflect “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience that is associated with, or resembling that associated with, actual or potential tissue damage.” This definition is critical for all forms of bullying including racism. The key word is “potential.” If someone strikes a body, it suffers tissue damage and results in pain. If someone threatens a brain, a nervous system, a body with social threat, then the reaction of pain is connected to “actual or potential interpersonal rejection or intentional abuse.”

The Agony of Social Rejection

Extensively researched in neuroscience and neurobiology, human mammals are social creatures and the threat of social rejection and interpersonal abuse is as agonizing as physical threats. In “The Neurobiology of Social Stress Resulting from Racism,” the researchers discuss how our painful reaction to social threat is a “protective/adaptive response” because our survival hinges on belonging. Likewise, pain in response to tissue damage is also a survival mechanism that alerts us to danger.

Tissue damage may take weeks to heal and weeks for the pain to subside. Pain from the threat of being rejected, being ostracized, being humiliated, being blocked repeatedly from opportunities and connection, or being verbally and psychologically abused, can go on for much longer and do far greater damage to brain and body as extensively documented in research and covered in The Bullied Brain.

The “Neurobiology of Social Stress” article looks at studies on how even “medical professionals can have false beliefs about biological differences” between black, Hispanic, and white individuals and their beliefs “influence treatment for pain conditions.” Imagine going to seek pain medication and finding yourself in an ongoing socially threatening situation that due to racism worsens your pain.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are one way to offer "pain medicine" to those who are suffering from the chronic pain of racism. We need to learn from brain science that restorative justice approaches not only work to right past wrongs, but are also a step towards taking the pain away from those wronged.


Fraser, J. (2022). The Bullied Brain. Lanham, MA.: Prometheus Books.

Hobson, J., Moody, M., Sorge, R., & Goodin, B. (2022). “The Neurobiology of Social Stress Resulting from Racism: Implications for Pain Disparities among Racialized Minorities.” Neurobiology of Pain 12.

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