How to reduce stress around sexual identity

It has long been accepted that the strain of ones sexual orientation (identity, attraction, behaviour) can make for stress vulnerability.


But hold on a minute, lets clarify a few points.


First, stress. We hear this word banded about, but what do we actually mean when we talk of stress? The word ‘stress’ is derived from the Latin ‘stringere’, meaning to draw tight. Later being used the describe hardship and affliction, and a response to a perceived threat, which became known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.


What happens in the body is the stress response releases adrenalin into the body, this raises the level of tension in our muscles and speeds up the heart beat (amongst a host of other things). This was an alarm system to our ancient ancestors to ensure their survival.


However, in todays fast paced society we face a barrage of daily stressful situations (although rarely life threatening as our ancestors did). We no longer allow ourselves the physical ‘fight or flight’, that is, releasing our aggression and fighting or turning and actually running away. These activities would release the build up of tension. Rather, we subdue or repress our natural responses. It is this that can lead to physical and psychological  complaints (what are often called distress).


This is why it is thought that up to 85% of all illnesses are stress related.


So, stress is a natural part of the human condition.


Stress is necessary for motivation, growth, development and change. Therefore, it is not whether stress is present or not that is important, but the level of stress, our perception of the events taking place and our response to our perceptions that will dictate how stressed we feel.

Second, sexual orientation. Western society has constructed and defined fairly rigid masculine and feminine characteristics and roles. Homophobia is rooted in the hatred of what is perceived to be feminine in men (in this our patriarchal society), which can result in violence, gay-bashing, and many forms of harassment and discrimination.


In our society conformity is prized and the atypical is scorned.


It is not our sexual orientation itself that is at issue, but our perceived difference. This can lead to social isolation and cause low self-esteem.


It is worth reminding ourselves of Morris Massey’s 4 Stages of Development, which runs through the imprinting period, from birth to age seven, to the modelling period, from about eight to age thirteen, and the socialisation period, from about fourteen to twenty-one. It is at this third stage most people become stuck. Most people never progress beyond socialisation (see my article LGBT, and taking the steps beyond socialisation).


And yet the forth stage, from about twenty-two onwards, is that of self-actualisation, where we become more fully who we truly are. Indeed, if you consider Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy on Needs we can see there is yet a further stage, that of self-transcendence, where we become the best version of who we truly are for ourselves and for others.


But rarely do people grow and progress to this stage.


This has brought up another two key aspects.


Perceptions. It has long been known that we don’t experience the world as it is, but as we perceive it to be. There is an old saying ‘your perception becomes your reality’ – do you think ‘I won’t believe it until I see it’ or ‘I won’t see it until I believe it’. There are a number of useful strategies and techniques for shifting your perspective and perception.


Self-esteem. Low self-esteem can lead to a display of symptoms of distress. It is worth bearing in mind there are four aspects of the self. Our self-worth, which is our intrinsic value, our self-esteem, which is how we feel about our self at this moment in time (which is were our distress, anxiety, low confidence etc resides), our self-image, which is how we see our self and the stories we tell our self, and our self-concept, the vision we have of our self for the future, our ideal self. Low self-esteem limits our self-concept of who we can be, making us think thoughts such as ‘I’m not good enough’.


Bringing it all together


Key aspects underlying stress vulnerability then is our perceptions and self-esteem. We can change our perceptions using perspective shifts and reframing techniques for healthier and stronger beliefs (see  my article How reframing helps us change). We can also enhance our self-esteem by focussing on our self-worth (see my article How to Build Self-worth) for it is our intrinsic self-worth that determines how we feel about our self and the stories we tell ourselves, which in turn, if they are empowering stories, will enhance our self-concept. Who we truly are.


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