Got Stress?

Work and finances are among the top stressors in the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey. No matter the source of your 
tension and hassles, we’ve got de-stressing strategies for you.

When Catherine Fisher Collins, Ph.D, enters her academic office at the State University of New York’s Empire State College for the day, she instantly calms her spirits by clicking one switch that turns on the room’s purposely soft lighting, the radio tuned to her favorite jazz station, and the electronic picture frame on her desk, which automatically cycles uplifting images of African American children. She’s an expert on the stressors that a woman of color can face—in the workplace, in social circles, at home—and the remedies. Best of all, she follows her own advice.

“Like so many women of color, I wear many hats—professional, mom, sister, grandmother, cook, chauffeur, volunteer, professor, scholar, club member, and author,” says Collins, who’s an associate professor, member of the Buffalo Board of Education, and author of Sources of Stress and Relief for African American Women. “Every hat a woman of color wears has the potential to create stress, and she must be prepared to handle it.”

Creating a comforting ambiance in the various spaces Collins occupies is just one of many de-stressing strategies she employs over the course of any given day. And little wonder: Like many of her peers of color, she confronts many of the same hassles of office politics and crises in confidence, the same acts of covert and overt discrimination that white women endure plus the “double whammy” of race-related pressures.

Even in today’s so-called enlightened age, she contends, many professional women of color work hard to maintain their sense of self and competence in settings where they may bear the isolation of being the only, or one of a few, of their ethnicity on the job, or may suffer disparity in pay from their white counterparts, male or female. The glass ceiling that hampers white females in the workplace has been described as a “concrete ceiling” for too many women of color, one that can be more difficult to penetrate or get a clear view of the corner office.

It’s enough to get on your last nerve, but take heart. According to Collins, you can choose from among plenty of “fortifying behaviors” that can help bolster your sense of well-being and ease your state of mind. Here’s a sampling of what she and other experts recommend.

Get moving

Exercise is a natural stress-buster, so take your pick of ways to get physical: jog before or after work, take a walk on your lunch hour, play badminton, go salsa dancing, every chance you get. To make sure your workout is a regular occurrence and not simply a good intention, schedule it just as you do other essential activities. Collins says she loves to go for a stroll—outdoors or on a treadmill while watching the evening news—and encourages folks to take things a step further and try skipping. “It’s fun to skip and take your mind off some of the craziness you have to endure,” she says, suggesting that intervals of the novel exercise can break up the monotony, and energize walking or jogging regimens.

“Every time I skip, I go back to Pratt Street [where she grew up]. I can visualize my family’s home and think about some of the kids who were with me. It is a distinct mood lifter.” Collins is also big on line dancing, and travels to national line-dancing confabs. Dancing is “African American women’s favorite pastime,” she says. “Dancing also helps to connect us to ourselves [and others] and, as such, relieves loneliness, and shields us from depression.”

Bliss out

Among the endless possibilities: soothing baths after work, trips to a spa for a sauna or massage, curling up with inspirational reading. Another option: Try setting aside one night a week for relaxation. Collins suggests declaring certain evenings off-limits to your kids so you and your spouse can have uninterrupted time alone. Soothe your soul by listening to your favorite music; better yet, get into the act yourself and sing along in the shower or in your car on the way to work.

Simplify and 
prioritize

If youíre already booked up, “just say no” can be an apt modus operandi—whether your child’s teacher is recruiting field-trip coordinators, or your co-worker wants you to take on added responsibilities. While you’re at it, try saying “no” to taking work home. Protect the freedom of your days off by doing laundry on weeknights, batching errands, even rethinking your cleaning standards. (Does that closet really need immediate straightening?)

Keep a journal

Use a daily diary to help identify stressors (including interactions with co-workers or clients), express your feelings, and document your progress in stress management.

Network and 
debrief

Women are more likely than men to leverage their social network as a tool for de-stressing, researchers say. So those nights out with your friends not only are big fun, but can be downright therapeutic. Ditto for time spent in sororities, community organizations, cultural associations, churches, mosques, book clubs—whatever allows you to nurture your authentic self.

Journey inward

Everything from guided imagery and biofeedback, to yoga and deep-breathing relaxation techniques can do the trick. Collins credits her daily practice of meditation and prayer with getting her through life’s challenges, including the period when she simultaneously 
managed to write her stress book, assist her son with college applications, and care for her mother, who was ill with cancer.
Today’s high demand for stress relief has inspired a rich supply of resources: books, CDs, workshops, scads of internet info; so take advantage of the bounty. Know that stress relief isn’t a one-shot deal. It’s a continuous (read: lifelong) process. It also isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition, and some things simply take practice.

Mindful Health
Herbert Benson, MD, author of The Relaxation Response, is a pioneer in the field of mind/body medicine, and conducted seminal research at the Harvard University Medical School that helped popularize meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction in the United States.Here’s a generic technique for deep relaxation that is taught at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital:

Start by picking a focus phrase, word, or prayer that is firmly rooted in your belief system [such as ‘one’ or ‘peace’]. Sit quietly in a comfortable position. Close your eyes. Relax your muscles, progressing from your feet to your calves, thighs, abdomen, shoulders, head, and neck. Breathe slowly and naturally, and as you exhale, say your focus word, sound, phrase, or prayer silently to yourself. Assume a passive attitude. Don’t worry about how well you’re doing. When other thoughts come to mind, simply say to yourself, “Oh well,” and gently return to your repetition. Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. Do not stand immediately. Continue sitting quietly for a minute or so, allowing other thoughts to return. Then open your eyes and sit for another minute before rising. Practice the technique once or twice daily. Good times to do so are before breakfast and before dinner. DW

Angela Noel is an editor and writer who works for a Bay Area publisher. She lives in Oakland, California, and is the mother of two daughters.

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