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New World Library Unshelved

New World Library Unshelved

Positive news and inspiring views from the New World Library community

Thursday, May 26, 2016
THE STRESS OF PREJUDICE by guest blogger Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, author of THE STRESS SOLUTION
Whenever we encounter someone we have an inherent prejudice against, whether conscious or unconscious, we begin to experience a degree of stress. When we are stressed we release the stress hormone cortisol, which limits our capacity for empathy while also causing repetitive negative thinking. If you have prejudices against several types of people, it is likely that your cortisol levels will be consistently high. In addition to causing negative thinking, excess cortisol can cause weight gain, inflammation, hair loss, muscle tissue breakdown, flabbiness, depression, anxiety, and memory loss.

The Origin of Prejudice
Once we realize that we all have probably learned inaccurate views of others early in life, we have the opportunity to change our perceptions from fear based to truth based. We live in a time when people are highly stressed, have low trust levels, and have fewer friends. Prejudice in our society has reached significant heights. 

When our perceptions are distorted stress becomes prevalent. One of the greatest achievements our minds can accomplish is to be able to perceive others and ourselves accurately. Children idealize their parents and other authority figures early in life, so if a parent, uncle, aunt, or older sibling repeatedly talks disparagingly about a particular race, culture, or religion, the child will likely be influenced by these incorrect preconceptions. 

Not long ago, at the pleading of his mother, I interviewed Chris, a young man who had become a white supremacist. As I entered my waiting room I was greeted with “So you’re the wop doctor my mother wants me to see.” He was obviously trying to provoke a reaction, and when he didn’t get the response he expected, he began a rampage about how the blacks, Hispanics, and Jews have ruined our country, and if I had a brain in my head I would understand the truth about what is happening rather than being one of the liberals defending the minorities. It wasn’t difficult to observe that Chris was a quick reactor, and quick reactors are ruled by their emotions, not by their thoughts. 

Empathy: The Salve for Prejudice
The key to understanding prejudice is to use empathy to uncover the root of the bias and the negative physical effects it causes. Empathy is the capacity to understand and respond to the unique experiences of another. It is not an emotion or a feeling but a capacity that is innately present. Empathy is part of our genetic endowment; it is essentially our ability to read others accurately, to see beyond the surface into the soul of another human being. 

Empathy is often confused with sympathy. Sympathy, as opposed to empathy, occurs when we identify with another person’s experience even when we do not actually know whether our experiences are similar. For example, you hear that a neighbor is being transferred to Texas, and you immediately respond by saying how sorry you are that her family has to move. She responds by telling you that she is going to work for her sister’s clothing chain as a buyer, and it’s the opportunity of a lifetime; plus, she and her husband will be near family and close to her old university and college friends. You realize with embarrassment that your quick reaction was not factual but emotional, projecting how you would feel rather than slowing down and gathering the facts. 

The Story behind the Story
Let’s return to my meeting with Chris. As I tolerated his aggression — and aggression is almost always a sign of insecurity and fear of vulnerability — he was able to tolerate my asking a few questions. I asked a few historical questions, and he revealed that he grew up outside Boston in a poor neighborhood. His alcoholic father left the family when he and his brother were in grade school, his mother worked two jobs, and the boys were often left alone to fend for themselves. I said I sensed that his hatred of blacks seemed to run very deep. He told me that he and his brother had been the only white kids riding the bus to school and were taunted and bullied all through grade school. As we returned to the origin of old hurts, his anger and distorted view of African Americans became clear. His childhood pain — the loss of his father, his overwhelmed mother, being taunted on the bus and in school — led to the cognitive distortions of overgeneralizing, black-and-white thinking, and emotional reasoning (being ruled by emotions rather than objective thinking). 

Empathic Listening
My meeting with Chris proved revealing for several reasons. When Chris was in his aggressive mode, his intensity caused the release of cortisol, which blocks our ability to be empathic and, as I mentioned earlier, causes repetitive negative thinking. When I was able to slow down the conversation, ask open-ended questions, and get to the root of his prejudice, we related in a much calmer, more open fashion. Empathy releases the hormone oxytocin, also called the love hormone or the connecting hormone. While cortisol makes us fearful, oxytocin makes us feel comfortable, secure, and in a position to give and receive empathy. Oxytocin reduces anxiety, reduces the release of cortisol, reduces addictive craving, and, most important, reduces aggression, fear, and bias. 

Empathic listening is slow listening; it is thoughtful and fact based. As Chris talked of his earlier traumatic experiences he was initially angry, but when I pointed out how he seemed to be using anger to hold back tears he softened and began to talk more rationally. I complimented his intelligence and said I doubted that he truly believed Barack Obama was an unintelligent man, as he had stated earlier. I didn’t ask him to agree with our president’s views, but rather asked him to tell me what he experienced when he heard President Obama speak. After some back-and-forth he said, “Okay, I admit he’s not dumb, but he is wrong about how to run this country.” We agreed to limit the political discussion, and we also agreed that one prejudice Chris had maintained most of his life was not true. And last, we agreed that if one prejudice turned out to be based on old hurts, not facts, the possibility of other prejudices being in the same category was worth exploring.

My brief encounter with Chris was similar to many I have had with people who are plagued by prejudices. As indicated earlier, prejudice increases stress, stress releases cortisol, and cortisol limits the ability to be empathic and also causes narrow, biased repetitive thinking. Empathic interactions release the compassionate hormone oxytocin, which in turn limits the release of cortisol and creates a sense of safety and security, allowing for old hurts to be uncovered and resolved. Empathic CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), the approach I present in The Stress Solution, provides a formula for unlearning prejudicial thinking and restoring the ability to perceive accurately. 

# # #

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, EdD, PhD, is the author of The Stress Solution: Using Empathy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Reduce Anxiety and Develop Resilience. He is a licensed clinical psychologist and the chief medical officer of, a popular mental health platform. He has been on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and chief psychologist of Metrowest Medical Center. The author of several books, including The Power of Empathy and Performance Addiction, he lives with his family in Massachusetts. Visit him online at

Based on the book The Stress Solution. Copyright © 2016 by Arthur P. Ciaramicoli.






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