To Your Health: Handle Stress before It Handles You

We all need strategies to keep the stress—work, family, life––from overwhelming us

By Bev Lucas

Five down and one meeting to go. That’s a typical workday in the life of Branita Griffin Henson, a senior writer-editor at the National Education Association (NEA) in Washington, DC. After work on any given evening, she could be practicing with the Cherubs, her church’s children’s choir that she directs, preparing for a sorority meeting or Bible study, or taking part in myriad other activities. “I’m fortunate that I enjoy my job, so I don’t find it stressful,” says Griffin Henson. “However, often the quantity of work and the competing priorities and my personal responsibilities can be.”

But work and life responsibilities can be just a start for many women of color, who also face subtle and sometimes not-so- subtle race-related stressors on the job. “As a woman of color, it’s important to understand that in many workplaces you will be judged by different standards and rules,” says Griffin Henson, a communications professional with more than 30 years of experience.

“Workplace culture can increase stress for women of color if they don’t feel supported or they feel isolated because of how few of them there are,” says Ruth C. White, PhD, mental health advocate and diversity, equity, and inclusion evangelist.

The dangers of chronic stress

We all have multiple sources of stress in our lives, and sometimes stress is a good thing. It triggers a rush of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, that cause your heart to beat faster, your blood pressure and blood sugar levels to go up, and your breathing to quicken. Dubbed the fight-or-flight response, “these changes make you alert and ready to act and can help you survive in a dangerous situation,” says Erica Martin Richards, MD, PhD, chair and medical director of the department of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, DC. “For example, when a car pulls out in front of yours, this jolt of hormones helps you quickly hit the brakes to avoid an accident,” she explains.

“A little short-term stress can also fuel productivity,” says Dr. Richards. “The stress of having a deadline at work, for example, may push you to get your work done on time.”

On the other hand, chronic stress—the type that lasts for weeks, or months, or longer—can be harmful to both your mental and physical health. Your body thinks and acts as if you are continually being threatened. This long-term stress can affect your mental health and lead to anxiety, burnout, and depression.

What’s more, a growing body of evidence shows a link between mental stress and cardiovascular disease. “In women in general, especially in Black women, we’re seeing an increase in cardiovascular disease in those who have anxiety,” says Dr. Richards. Researchers from the Jackson Heart Study, the largest study of causes of cardiovascular disease in Black Americans, reported another concerning connection. They found that in Black women, greater levels of chronic stress over time were associated with increased likelihood of developing high blood pressure—a key risk factor for heart attacks and stroke.

These and similar findings help explain why doctors are being encouraged to screen their patients for anxiety and depression. “If we can get those issues under control, we may be able to stop or at least slow the progression of cardiovascular disease that we’re seeing in Black women,” says Dr. Richards.

That’s significant. According to the American Heart Association, nearly 59 percent of Black women age 20 and older in the United States have some form of cardiovascular disease. It’s not just Black women who should be concerned: a 2021 study in JAMA, in which most participants were white, found that mental stress was linked to a greater risk of heart attacks, heart failure, and death in women and men with heart disease.

It’s important to note that the adverse health effects of mental stress are not limited to the cardiovascular system. Chronic stress has been shown to trigger or exacerbate a variety of conditions, including asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), irritable bowel syndrome, eczema, and autoimmune disorders such as lupus and multiple sclerosis. “One of the reasons I was forced to address my stress is that I have multiple sclerosis,” says Griffin Henson. “Stress has a negative and direct impact on my condition. If I don’t keep my stress level under control,
it can impact my energy level, my ability
to use my limbs, and even my sight.”

Stress management strategies

The good news is that there are practical strategies you can use to help better manage the stressors in your life.

Plan your day

Plan for the stressors you know you’ll face, advises Dr. White, who is the author of Everyday Stress Relief: Essential Techniques to Boost Emotional Resiliency and Improve Your Health. “You can reduce some morning stressors by getting things ready the night before. Lay out your clothes, take a shower, prep for breakfast, leave your bags and keys near the door so you know where things are. If driving is stressful, public transportation might be a good alternative.”

Griffin Henson uses a daily planner app that allows her to keep track of her calendar, to-do lists, and projects for work and home all in one place. “Adequate planning prevents unnecessary last-minute emergencies,” she says.

Set realistic goals

Is your to-do list too long? Learn to prioritize your tasks. Focus on what must be done that day. Ask yourself, is there anything on the list that can be eliminated? “You don’t have to do everything yourself,” advises Griffin Henson. “If you’re in management, don’t be afraid to delegate.”

Change your perspective

“You often cannot control how much stress you experience, but you can control your reaction to it,” says Dr. White. Her tip: “Shift your perspective from a negativity bias to a positivity bias.” In other words, “focus on everything that could go right instead of everything that could go wrong.”

Meditation/mindfulness

As a way to manage stress, many experts recommend meditation, which offers positive effects on physical and mental health. Some types of meditation involve maintaining mental focus on a particular sensation, such as breathing or a mantra. The practice of meditation known as mindfulness encourages awareness of the present moment instead of worry about your to-do list or ruminating about the past.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, is taught in a formal eight-week course that also includes other strategies to apply to stressful experiences. One review of more than 200 studies found that mindfulness meditation therapy was “especially effective for reducing stress, anxiety, and depression.” Mindfulness and other meditation classes are offered in person, online, or via apps.

Find support

Several studies have shown that social support is beneficial for physical and mental health. “When stress-provoking events arise, I rely on my faith, family, friends—and mindfulness,” says Griffin Henson. “I subscribe to the adage that says, ‘You can’t pray and worry.’”

Griffin Henson adds that she is blessed to have a large community of friends on whom she can rely. “I don’t talk to everyone about everything, but I do have individuals I can talk to about anything that bothers me.” That’s a strategy supported by the American Psychological Association, which notes that it’s a good idea to “look to different relationships for different kinds of support.” The APA recommends getting support from people you trust and can count on, while steering clear of relationships that make you feel worse.

If you need to shore up your support network, experts suggest finding others who share your interests: join a club or volunteer for a cause you support. If you’re facing a specific stressor, such as caring for a parent with dementia, look for a support group to meet others in similar situations.

Work-life balance

Work is important, but don’t forget to plan time for yourself, says Dr. Richards. “It’s counterintuitive, but making that time—whether you use it to exercise, read a book, meditate, or even to get your hair or nails done—can help you decompress and achieve other things that you’re trying to do.”

Griffin Henson offers this advice: “Take off your Superwoman cape. You may be able to have it all, but not all at the same time, so know what your priorities are and organize your life accordingly. And above all else, remember to give yourself great grace.”

When you need more support

How do you know if you need more than self-help strategies to address your mental health? “Consider whether stress is affecting your ability to function on a day-to-day basis,” says Dr. Richards. “For example, are you oversleeping? Are you eating more, or less, than usual? Are you more cheerful or more withdrawn?” She notes that when a shift from normal functioning occurs, you should reach out to inquire whether it’s due to typical stress or something else at play.

“If you’re not sure where to get help, start with someone you trust who can lead you to that next step,” Dr. Richards advises. “This may be your primary care physician, ob-gyn, or even your child’s pediatrician,” she says, “or it might be a trusted member of your congregation.” She adds that “there’s a push to train members of congregations to screen for and counsel fellow members on mental health issues and how to get help if needed.”

Dr. White notes that in the past, some members of the Black community relied solely on faith to help with mental health concerns. “But getting professional help for mental health is no different than getting it for physical health,” she says. “Today, the stigma about therapy for mental health issues in the Black community is fading.” Griffin Henson agrees. “My faith is important to me,” she says, “but I don’t hesitate to use other tools, including seeing a therapist when I need to.” DW

Bev Lucas is a freelance writer in New Jersey. She frequently covers healthcare issues affecting communities of color.



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