An Interview with Kelly McGonigal, PhD, on Minority Stress, Shame, and Stress Resilience

Kelly McGonigal
Kelly McGonigal

Here's what I've already learned from the inspiring and scientifically-based work of Kelly McGonigal, PhD: what it means to say yes to my goals, to understand that I do have the power to change things in my life, and how stress can actually work with me instead of against me.

 

Kelly McGonigal, PhD is a health psychologist and lecturer at Standford University. Her TED talk called How to Make Stress Your Friend is thought provoking, inspiring, and has had over 2 million views.

When I heard her speak at a women's conference in Boulder, CO in October 2013, I knew that I wanted to interview her for The We Belong Project, to find out what wisdom she might have to share with sexual minority women (and the larger LGBTQ community).

Here's my Q&A with Kelly McGonigal.

We talk about minority stress, shame and stress resilience. I hope you glean some great takeaways from our written conversation. I know I have.


TWBP: Dr. McGonigal, thank you so very much for doing this interview around dealing with minority stress. Your work around stress resilience is so helpful to me, personally, and I know it will be to my readership, as well.

In your perspective, how is minority stress like, or unlike, other types of stress human beings face?

DR. McGONIGAL: The biggest difference is that minority stress relates to something that is unchangeable – some aspect of the self, like race, gender identity, or sexual orientation – that is essential to who you are.

The human stress response is designed to help us survive emergencies, fix solvable problems, or navigate temporary social circumstances. It focuses our attention and floods us with energy, but in a way that is not sustainable as a default way of functioning.

So when the source of stress is related to something we do not want to “fix” (ourselves), is pervasive rather than occasional (e.g. living or working in a place where you experience stigma), or is unlikely to change in the short-term (e.g., society’s perspective), our brain’s and body’s usual ways of responding to stress is unlikely to be helpful. It may motivate us to try to change the world, but it’s just as likely to make us unable to sleep at night.

I believe this is why of all the forms of chronic stress, stress related to the “self,” and related to social status/belonging seem to have the largest consequences on well-being.

TWBP: What can a woman of sexual minority do to help improve happiness and overall well-being for herself when she may be surrounded by judgment from others? What can we do as individuals who are part of a minority population when we feel misunderstood, judged and are shamed?

DR. McGONIGAL: One of the least-appreciated aspects of the biological stress response is that stress can make us social. When we experience stress, the body produces a neurohormone called oxytocin that increases our desire to connect with friends and family. Oxytocin can increase also increase a sense of belonging to your “tribe,” and your willingness to help others in your tribe.

I believe it is this impulse to connect that will save us from both the psychological and physical harm of chronic stress. It also is the antidote to the shame or isolation we can feel when the stress is caused by stigma, discrimination, stereotypes, or judgment. Biologically, women are especially predisposed to connect under stress, and we need to trust this instinct. Shame can suppress this instinct, so we need to train ourselves to let shame become a signal to connect.

Connecting with people who understand your experience is an important strategy – to receive support and understanding. But so is looking for other people who need your support. Research shows that helping others is one of the best ways to reduce the harmful effects of stress, psychologically and biologically.

TWBP: In your work, you talk about stress resilience. What does that mean and how can developing resilience help a woman of sexual minority who is experiencing minority stress?

I define stress resilience as being able to thrive under stress, learn from stressful experiences, and use stress as a source of growth. Technically, resilience means that you bounce back – that stress doesn’t effect or change you. But that doesn’t seem possible or even ideal. Better yet is the ability to use stress as a catalyst for action, connection, and transformation.

I believe that resilience is the consequence of how we choose to relate to stress, to ourselves, and to each other. Resilience is not a fixed personality trait, but a process.

Connecting with others is part of the process. So is connecting to meaning. Under stress, can you turn to your personal values, faith, or service? For example, how could you use this situation as an opportunity to express one of your core values or strengths – like humor, compassion, or courage?

TWBP: In your TED talk about making stress your friend, you talk about the importance of moving in the direction of your desire instead of avoiding discomforts. I think this is brilliant and can be applied to the desire to become a positive, happy person despite the sometimes negative feedback from the general population. Can this idea work even if others would have you believe you deserve to be uncomfortable because of your sexual orientation?

Dr. McGONIGAL: Yes. Avoiding discomfort is the world’s worst strategy because it requires choosing discomfort. For example, if you choose to avoid situations that make you anxious, you are choosing anxiety, and strengthening anxiety’s ability to control you. If you choose to avoid opportunities that trigger self-doubt, you are choosing self-doubt and convincing self-doubt it is right. When people with chronic pain avoid activities that they fear will make their pain worse and limit their function, they are choosing fear and limits to what they can do.

I don’t mean this in any metaphysical way. It’s just what avoidance is. The very act of avoiding reinforces the experience you are trying to protect yourself from.

So the pragmatic solution is to choose which discomfort you are willing to feel in order to pursue what matters most. Do you want to feel anxiety while avoiding things that have meaning, or do you want to feel anxiety while you do them? Do you want to feel the discomfort of others’ perceived judgments as you hold yourself back, or as you express yourself and pursue your own happiness?

Paradoxically, accepting discomfort is one of the only ways to actually change it. When we take action, we eventually transform our inner experiences and how the world relates to us.


This gives me SO much to think about and provides some much-needed comfort. Thank you, Kelly, for the gift of your insight, research and kindness today.

What about you, readers? How might your experience of minority stress be different after reading and integrating Dr. McGonigal's research on stress resilience? Let's talk about it in the comments.

About Dr. Kelly McGonigal (from her website, KellyMcGonigal.com):

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, and a leading expert in the new field of “science-help.” She is passionate about translating cutting-edge research from psychology, neuroscience, and medicine into practical strategies for health, happiness, and personal success.

Her most recent book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It (Penguin 2012), explores the latest research on motivation, temptation, and procrastination, as well as what it takes to transform habits, persevere at challenges, and make a successful change. Her audio seriesThe Neuroscience of Change (Sounds True 2012) weaves the newest findings of science with Eastern contemplative wisdom to give listeners a revolutionary process for personal transformation. She is also the author of Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind and Heal Your Pain (New Harbinger, 2009), which translates recent advances in neuroscience and medicine into mind-body strategies for relieving chronic pain, stress, depression, and anxiety.

Find her website here, Twitter here and FaceBook here.

Photo Credit.