Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Stress and Prejudice: Why Is It So Tough to Embrace Our Differences?


I have been a stress expert for several decades, and my thoughts have recently turned to the effects of stress on prejudice and intolerance. I grew up in the inner city with mixed ethnic groups living and working together, and was accustomed to hearing three languages spoken, sometimes in the same sentence.  My dad only went to the second grade, never learned to read or write, and spoke English with a distinct Italian accent. But people who knew languages would say that he spoke Italian and Spanish as if he had been to graduate school. My high school educated mom spoke four languages. So it makes sense that my mind has now turned to the issue of multiculturalism.

My blogs on this subject will focus on educating you about the potential stress-related triggers to  prejudice. I realize that intolerance and bullying cause an enormous amount of stress on its victims, but the literature on this subject is growing and significantly larger than writings on stress as a potential trigger  for victimizing others.

Why is it so tough to embrace our differences? My belief is that an understanding of the brain’s fight-flight response and the way the brain stores threatening memories will educate readers about one important variable that contributes to the growing threat of intolerance in modern society.

I am a Clinical Psychologist with advanced training in the neurosciences so my focus will be on stress from a brain, body and behavior perspective. In future blogs, I will write about the fight-flight response and the brain’s tendency to overreact emotionally to perceived threat, as well as the issue of early learning and memory storage of emotional experiences.

First a caveat and disclosure: I realize that prejudice and intolerance are complex issues and don’t pretend to know the answer to these problems. Clearly, there are multiple causes that are being considered by other professionals such as Social Psychologist, Sociologists and specialists on racism. My intent – based on decades of work on stress and anxiety – is to fill in the gap of information on the mental, physical and behavioral sides of the intolerance of diversity.

In a way, we all have the capacity to be cautious, suspicious even paranoid about people who are different from us.  It stems from a built-in, automatic brain system that keeps alert about potential dangers in our environment. I call it the “suspicious eye”.  The early learning experiences from parents and significant others that teach us to overuse this “eye” can add fuel to the fire of this aversion to differences.

The knowledge of the effects of stress on prejudice may give us clues to the most important issue: How do we increase tolerance of diversity in our world. That’s my ultimate goal for writing this blog. For more information about stress and its profound effects on brain, body and behavior, you can visit my website at