Over the last few months in particular, Black people have been subjected to an increased amount if trauma. From the disproportionate rates of illnesses from COVID-19, to the unfair treatment of the community by law enforcement, these tensions are adding to an already emotionally taxed, and stressed culture. Being stressed has been so ingrained in our culture leading to harmful psychological and physical impacts – many of which are ignored until health is severely compromised.
Stress is described as any mental or physical factor that causes tension in the body and causes chemical, biological or behavioral changes. Stress is designed to alert and protect us of a threat of danger. The human body can quickly recover from this short-term stress, but the real damage occurs when stress becomes long-term (i.e. toxic work environment, inner-city violence, relationship issues, etc.), and the alarm bells in the body never turn off! Stress becomes chronic when it’s prolonged and deemed uncontrollable.
It’s time to examine, more than ever, how chronic stress wears down the overall health of Black people. In addition to common stressors such as work, family obligations, healthcare and other commitments, Blacks must cope with the results of disparate educational and professional resources, the social injustices plaguing the country, and flat out racism. New research shows that these compounded stressors are robbing Blacks of a satisfying quality of life and even longevity. “Lifetime stress is associated with poor cognitive health in everyone, but African Americans report more stressful events, and those events are associated with greater cognitive detriment,” says Megan Zuelsdorff, Ph.D. She also stated that racial disparities have long been evident in the development and progression of dementia.
In addition to cognitive effects, stress yields cortisol, which when elevated is associated with, but is not limited to, insomnia, increased blood sugar, liver damage, insulin dysregulation, depression, diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and obesity. When excessive cortisol is released, it looks for cortisol receptors. The abdominal fat cells have four times more cortisol receptors than fat cells located in other parts of the body. The receptors are like magnets for the cortisol. Therefore, if a person is super stressed, it can be very difficult for them to lose weight let alone belly fat, regardless of how much they’re exercising. Research has shown that daily stressors and a history of depression promote obesity.
Blacks can no longer allow the impact of chronic stresses to go unrecognized. The consequences are just too high. Lifestyle changes can be the first step towards stress reduction in addition to working with medical professionals to monitor the health implications.
Here are five important steps towards stress reduction:
- Dismantle the belief that black people are resilient to everything.
Blacks are credited with being “strong and independent” and for carrying the weight of others on their shoulders. Just because people are strong, doesn’t mean they always have to be. Ask for help when you need it, and learn how to say “no.” Identifying the circumstances in your life that are within your control to change is a great way to start.
- Do not accept the stressed-out life culture.
In today’s society, it’s honorable – and even glamorous – to juggle multiple responsibilities, be sleep-deprived, and “hustle.” That’s not the only way to be successful. Focus on the things that are important, and make sure you’re dedicating the right amount of time to sleep and exercise.
- Go to therapy.
Addressing mental health does not mean that you’re crazy, or that you’re betraying your friends and family by seeking professional counsel. According to Psychology Today, blacks qualify at a higher rate for being diagnosed for PTSD because of the negative psychological impact of racial discrimination, but are less likely to have their mental health addressed. Therapy or counseling offers a legally safe place to begin a journey of healing from negative thoughts, emotions and behaviors.
- Understand that stress is deadly.
It is associated with hypertension, strokes, heart disease, and heart attacks. Listen to your body – stress is a warning. Discuss these stressors with your medical practitioners so effective treatment can be created for your total health.
- Exercise Self-Care
Both your mind and body need a regular “timeout.” Self-care practices don’t need to be a vacation overseas or a 90-minute Swedish massage (though, those aren’t bad options!). There are ways that you can implement self-care daily. You can take a walk around your neighborhood park, light a candle while you shower, practice reading, meditation, etc. The goal is just for you to set aside 15-20 minutes daily as your personal time to recharge.
Daily stress reduction interventions must become a way of life for our people. Blacks must embrace these strategies to manage stress. By understanding the impacts of this killer, we can begin to improve our health, our quality of life and our overall well-being.
Let’s begin to trade the stressing for striving. We can’t afford not to.
Sonya Davie is a licensed mental health counselor and certified health and life coach who works in private practice in New York City.