When writing my post about stress-related medical conditions, I went down an intellectual rabbit hole that I wanted to highlight: the stresses involved in being a minority of any kind.
People tend to immediately categorize all they engage with as either “like” or “other”. They connect with those who are like them, and view the “other” with suspicion.
In the society we currently live in, the most socially acceptable thing to be is an abled straight white (Christian) man. The more different you are from being that, the more likely you are to experience minority stress – the pressure that accompanies not fitting the social ideal.
This is not just about race, though viewing things through the racial lense is a very useful way to start.
As a white person, I’m not the expert in this experience, and I recognize that many of my minority identities are not readily visible, so I have some control over when, if, and how my identity is revealed. That decreases some of the external pressure, but not necessarily the internal ones.
Racial minorities and stress
There are many types of stress-associated conditions out there, hitting many types of health conditions, including both mental and physical illnesses. It’s important to recognize that while all races have stress-associated conditions, stress-associated conditions do not impact all races equally.
Both the stresses to manage and the severity of stress you need to manage may vary based on your identity and life situation.
Minority-identified people and poor people both have higher stress levels and shorter life spans than wealthier white people.
This study actually controlled for wealth, by including poor white people and wealthy black people in it, and while white people’s health outcomes improved as wealth increased, Black people, on average, did not have a similar reduction in stress or improvement in health as they succeeded financially.
Just think about it, having more money helped poor white people have better health outcomes, BUT it didn’t help black folks. This reinforces the issues of systemic racism in society.
It is important to recognize how deeply interdependent the many stress-associated variables can be – and how much better our society would likely be if fewer people were experiencing these high stress levels.
While it appears that black people and white people are diagnosed with mental illness at a similar rate, studies suggest that some of the differences in health outcomes is due to the coping mechanisms used.
In this case, the study argues that, collectively, black people have found tools to help manage their mental health under increased stress, but these tools to manage their mental health increase their likelihood of developing long-term health issues. Examples of these tools include eating comfort food, smoking, drinking alcohol, and illicit drug use.
This doesn’t mean that only black people do these things, of course, but that when you step back and look at the big picture, it appears likely that the reason black people aren’t diagnosed with more mental health conditions isn’t that they are under less pressure, but rather because enough were able to protect their mental health through habits that damage their physical health in the long term.
Minority stress and the LGBT community
Many scientists argue that simply having a stigmatized identity in modern society is stressful in and of itself.
This designation, “minority stress” covers not only racial minorities(like Blacks, Asians, Native Americans, or Hispanics), but also other minority identities, such as the LGBT community.
While minority stress was initially explored as a model covering non-heterosexual orientations, it has been applied to other communities as well, including women, religious minorities, and more.
The LGBT community is subjected to extra stresses, especially LGBT youth.
In general, the LGBT community struggles more with mental health than straight people do.
Bi folks have the highest rates of mental illness of all orientations, even though bisexuality may actually be the most common orientation.
Hetronormativity has pushed many people who may be bisexual to cling to one end or the other of the heterosexual/homosexual spectrum, as society, in general, tends to assume that if a man has ANY attraction to men, he’s gay. The stigma on bisexual women is different(highly eroticized and assumptions of non-monagamy), but still damaging.
Transgender people are even more of a minority within the community(trans folk seem to make up under 1% of the US population) and generally have even more health issues than the rest of the LGBT community.
On top of the mental health challenges mentioned above, doctors are even less prepared for trans health considerations than they are for the rest of the community.
The disabled identity is a minority identity
Disabled people are the largest minority identity in the US, covering about 26% of the US population. This covers a very broad definition of disability and a very wide range of symptoms and limitations.
We also experience minority stress, plus the individual challenges that our disabilities(and society’s lack of accessibility) create. That’s a lot of chronic stress to manage.
Not only that, but many of us with disabilities have intersectional minority identities as well.
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, people with intersectional identities often face extra challenges than others who share either identity.
So, for those of us who are disabled, we’re managing the stress of our conditions(chronic illness being recognized as one of the biggest situational stresses out there), the stress of societal response to our being disabled, and the stresses that most folks who share other aspects of our particular identity share with us.
As an example, I am a disabled bisexual cis-gendered white woman. I’m managing the stresses of FND(a stress-responsive neurological condition that’s poorly understood), migraines, a history of mental illness(and the stigma that goes with that), the stress of being openly bisexual, and the stress of being a woman.
There’s a lot to unpack, but my point is that there are a lot of aspects of who I am that expose me to extra stresses.
Is it any wonder that my immune system seems weaker than average?
Having multiple stress-responsive conditions means that the better I manage my mindset and the more successful I am at managing my stresses, the more likely I am to have a better quality life.
Managing stress as a minority identity
I just want to help you be aware that you aren’t imagining that life is harder for you than for the average person – it really is.
The first thing I hope you do with this data is to absorb what it means – that you really are dealing with a lot of external stress and pressure.
Those pressures likely increase your risk of complications and make it easier to trigger some, if not all, of your symptoms.
You also are at a higher risk of internalizing those pressures, being even more self-critical than you might otherwise be.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that you aren’t alone.
While you likely have one or more minority identities, the work that you do to help yourself manage stress should help you manage many of these pressures.
Finding others like you can help you feel more understood, but people don’t need to share all qualities with you to be able to empathize with your challenges.
The skills associated with stress management are also similar across the board.
Taking time to journal, for example, will help you process your challenges as a whole being, however many minority identities you have.
The same goes for meditation, mindfulness, listening to your body, taking naps, and many other aspects of self-care and stress management.
Knowing the tendencies of those who share your identity may also help you recognize the risks you are particularly predisposed towards and manage them.
Turning to any form of addictive substance or behavior, as an example, is a risk for people managing stress, as it relieves the pressure temporarily but is likely to cause health issues in the long term. Recognizing that risk may help you moderate activities that frequently become addictive.
Personally, my awareness of my family’s history of alcohol addiction, for example, keeps me aware of if and how often I consume alcohol.
That doesn’t mean I don’t drink it, but I do actively avoid developing habits involving alcohol consumption – and I make a point of not drinking if I am in a position of emotional instability. In other words, I’ll happily have a drink with friends to enhance my enjoyment, but I’m not going to drink to escape my stresses.
Being a minority is stressful, especially with all the bias expressed out in the world.
Being disabled is a minority identity, and subject to those same pressures.
Recognizing that these pressures are out there can help you better recognize the associated stresses and manage them, including giving yourself a break.
Ableism is just as real as racism and sexism, and all too often we have absorbed aspects of those attitudes as well.
How do you manage your minority stress?
By recognizing its reality, and finding ways to reaffirm your value to yourself.
You deserve to be happy and to live a quality life.
I hope this post helps you understand the challenges to that and what you can do to have a good life anyway!
Hi Alison! It’s been ages, but what a great post, especially for Stress Awareness Month. I’ve been going through my old entries this month and it’s always interesting to look back on. It is also very interesting for me to read about these types of things from a Western perspective compared to my 20 years in Asia – a whole different ballgame where I am a minority, but still oddly privileged for being white, but then at other times as a non person since foreigners aren’t able to recieve any kind of social assistance here if they need it. It’s so complicated. But I like articles like this that break it down.
Hi Carrie – it’s great to hear from you!
Thanks for bringing in that different perspective! White privilege is especially sticky because of colonialism/imperialism, when all too often regions and nations of nonwhites have had a white ruling class at some point in their history. There may still be some minority stress as a white person(I know that I personally had a bit of a revelation in that department when my partner and his family took me shopping in a Hispanic grocery store and I suddenly realized that I was likely the only non-Latino person there), but there’s the potential for respect/power behind it. There’s less of a sense of potential for danger, I think. More just an awareness of difference than anything else. I remember examining that memory repeatedly, realizing that many minorities have that experience MOST of THE TIME, and rarely have the comfort I do of having most of the people around me at least look similar to me.
I think breaking it all down is so deeply important for exactly this reason! The fear of the “other” goes back to the beginning of our capability for thought, and the mental shift from abled to disabled can be particularly tough because of all the ablism out there, especially all of the internalized ableism.
I’m hoping that this post will help whoever reads it feel comforted that it isn’t THEM, it’s humanity – and to not hold themselves responsible for how different they may be feeling, when it’s really the result of simply being human.
This is such a great post Alison, raising awareness about a really important topic. It’s so hard living in a world where you don’t conform to the norm and can feel pressured to change to fit in. Stress is such an overlooked aspect of health and caring for your mental health is so important, especially when you feel you don’t belong or are made to feel inferior and out of place. I’ve definitely experienced minority stress since being diagnosed with a chronic illness. Being in the minority is hard enough without the judgement and condemnation from others. Finding ways to manage stress and self care like you said is so important.
Thank you! YES, the need to fit in is seen super clearly in most high schools throughout the country(and likely around the world) as each teen is trying to figure out their own identity while participating in their respective cliques.
Peer pressure can be strong at any age, but I think that’s when it’s the most obvious. Ableism is another major culprit in this, and one that isn’t recognized often enough. Most of us, especially who become disabled later in life have internalized a lot of those ableist messages, and so are especially hard on ourselves for our “failures”. Also, some cultures are especially judgemental of certain identities, which makes having those intersectional identities even more challenging.
Fortunately, self-care and self-awareness tends to help with all aspects of this minority stress that you recognize. While the challenges may multiply, the solutions are additive. Stress can be deadly, and we all deserve to live lives with less stress and more happiness!