Living as a minority in the United States is a stressful experience. Racism, homophobia, sexism, and discrimination in multiple forms are often highlighted in local and national news outlets. Stories of assaults, workplace bias, and policy inequities have a detrimental impact on the psyche of minority individuals who often place themselves in the same shoes of the people who experience those events and atrocities firsthand.
What Is Minority Stress?
While three out of four Americans report experiencing at least one symptom of stress, minority stress is a term that encompasses stressful situations and experiences due to one’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity. While minority stress can be situational, it tends to be perpetual or chronic in nature because it is centered on a facet of an individual’s existence that does not change.1
According to Alejandro Rodriguez, LMHC at The Center Orlando, “Minority Stress speaks to the added layers of stress that are felt by those of a marginalized group. These stressors are those felt on top of the everyday stressors felt by those of the larger community. An example of minority stress within the LGBTQ+ community would be the everyday stress of being in and navigating conflict within romantic relationships, but added to this would be the isolation one may feel of not being able to seek support from friends and/or family for fear of judgment or ridicule for who you love.”15
Minority Stress Model
The Minority Stress Model was first studied with individuals who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual in the early 2000s. It provides an explanation for stress experienced by minorities that can lead to disproportionate mental health and physical outcomes.2 Individuals from marginalized communities experience a lack of political representation, rejection, or discrimination in employment and housing. This can lead to stress, emotional fatigue, and depression.3
Minority stress is social, unique, and chronic:1
The minority stress model provides an explanation for some of the complicated emotions and experiences that uniquely impact people from marginalized populations. Additionally, experiencing minority stress and having symptoms that impact one’s ability to function on a daily basis is an indication that support and resources are needed. This can include going to therapy, medication management, and supportive/therapeutic groups.3
5 Types of Minority Stress
Minority stress can look different for individuals of various minority communities; however, there are several major types of minority stress that impact individuals, including victimization and discrimination.
Five types of minority stress are:4
- Heteronormative cultural norms
- Stereotyping and prejudice
- Systematic bias
Transgender and gender nonconforming individuals experience higher rates of discrimination and victimization than cisgender individuals. In addition to external stresses, they are more likely to attempt suicide or report a history of suicidal ideation. Gender minorities may also experience internalized stigma due to feeling that they may have to conceal their identity or true self.
Being part of more than one marginalized population can lead to an expectation of rejection and avoiding situations that could prove stressful.5 There may also be situations where their chosen pronouns are not used or honored in favor of their “dead name”—which can cause emotional distress and inner turmoil.
Individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual can experience stressful and hostile environments due to their identity—which can lead to an increase in mental health disorders like depression or anxiety. Sexual minorities may experience rejection or misunderstanding from family or friends as well as judgement or criticism. They may also feel internal conflict or shame due to living in a heteronormative society.
These stresses, along with discriminatory practices and internalized homophobia, can lead to increased substance abuse, life dissatisfaction, and affective disorders.6
Racial minorities can experience increased rates of psychological stress and when they have a mental disorder, symptoms can be more debilitating. Experiencing discrimination and bias that is directly related to race causes stress that can lead to physical and mental problems. In a recent study with racial minorities, discrimination was adversely linked to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and significant psychological distress. For children and adolescents, discrimination can lead to an increase in behavioral issues.7
Effects of Minority Stress
Individuals who experience minority stress can be at increased risk for substance abuse and mental health challenges. They may struggle with internalized rejection and shame.8 The recent pandemic also exacerbated rates of minority stress due to the decrease in social support, increase in race-related police brutality, and demonstrations of cisnormativity and heteronormativity in policy and practice.
Minority populations report higher rates of suicide, rejection, victimization, and harassment.9 Minorities can also have lower rates of physical health and experts have confirmed that stress can lead to an increase in high blood pressure, obesity, and heart disease.10
Rodriguez states, “There may also be risk of heightened paranoia or being hyper-aware of any potential rejection or threat, irritability, lack of felt sense of connection and acceptance, a tendency towards social isolation, increased sense of shame/guilt, and many others.”
Coping With Minority Stress
While minority stress can be unavoidable, there can be healthy ways to manage it. One of the ways to do this is to become more physically active. Eating healthy, developing a good sleep regimen, and connecting with social supports can all be ways to cope with stress.11 Limiting alcohol, nicotine, and tobacco can also be beneficial in dealing with stress as well as making sure that you stay hydrated.12
Rodriguez suggests, “First, start to see the ways minority stress presents in your life. By shining a light of awareness on it, you can begin to see how to work towards change. As you begin to notice minority stress and the self-sabotaging thoughts that may accompany it, you can begin to challenge those thoughts by replacing them with countering thoughts, those that seek to lift you up and affirm your positive qualities. If this is hard to do, find others who can do this for you. Seek out friends, family, content creators, etc. that celebrate the beauty that makes you different.”
Additionally, engaging in mindfulness exercises like meditating and grounding can help you become more self-aware and practice self-compassion. Mindfulness can help with concentration and calming down the stress response that is triggered in the part of the brain called the amygdala.13
When to Get Professional Help for Minority Stress
It’s important to keep in mind that we all deal with stress in a different way. However, it’s important to be aware of some of the signs that you need to get some additional support and professional help. Seeing a healthcare professional like a therapist, psychiatrist, or primary care doctor can be an essential first step in addressing stress-related physical and mental challenges.
Here are three signs you should seek professional help for minority stress:
- Significant sleep difficulties: If you have difficulty sleeping more than four hours per night or find yourself sleeping for over 12 hours at a time on a regular basis, it is an indication that you need professional intervention. Additionally, experiencing perpetual night terrors or nightmares can also be a sign that stress is adversely affecting you.
- Feelings of perpetual hopelessness or helplessness: While feeling sadness is a normal part of life, feeling that there is no hope or that you are completely helpless can be an indication of severe depression.
- Interpersonal relationship struggles: Stress can have a negative impact on our relationships with others. Frequent conflicts, communication difficulties, and feeling disconnected from social support can be an indication that you need a professional resource.
If this is the case, it can be helpful to meet with a mental health professional who understands your concerns, whether that be a Black, Latinx, or LGBTQ+.
Final Thoughts on Dealing With Minority Stress
Sometimes minority stress is unavoidable, and it can significantly impact your mental and physical health. Being aware of your own feelings and emotions and developing healthy coping mechanisms can make a significant difference in your ability to manage stress. Invest in your personal relationships, be present, develop a self-care regimen, and take breaks from news and social media when necessary.14