Black Stress Needs Black Action

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor

Every year the American Psychological Association (APA) releases its Stress in America™ report with results from an annual survey on how Americans experience and react to stress, including what participants identify as their most significant sources of stress. The results of the August 2016 survey showed the lowest levels of overall stress in the 10 years the APA has conducted the survey. Questions dealing with the upcoming election were added, and results showed that 52% of participants were experiencing very or somewhat significant levels of stress related to the outcome of the election. In January 2017, it followed up with what it calls a snapshot, a much shorter, highly-focused set of questions designed to measure Americans’ stress levels regarding the political climate, the nation’s future, and the election. Not surprisingly, African Americans reported the highest levels of stress among all demographic groups surveyed.

Specifically, 69% of Blacks are stressed out about Trump being the leader of the free world; 71% are worried about police violence targeted toward minorities; and 70% are concerned about their finances. Fully a third of all Americans surveyed are experiencing symptoms commonly associated with mental health issues: feeling overwhelmed, feeling nervous or anxious, or feeling depressed or sad. (It’s interesting to note that even with the information now known about the differences in how minorities, particularly African Americans, manifest stress and onset of mental and emotional disturbance, the descriptions of emotional states still doesn’t include markers like anger, frustration, or irritation.)

Faced with stress levels like those reported in the survey and stressors more likely to get worse before they get better, strategic, intentional action is the cure for lessening the well-documented negative health effects of chronic, toxic stress. Exercise, meditation, reading, and the like can alleviate the damage done by cortisol build-up and its cell-aging action. But working to reduce and eliminate the sources of the stress gives more bang for the buck every time. 

The problems ‘out there’ must have solutions identified and developed ‘in here’. The average African American did not personally know Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castille, Oscar Grant, Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, Jordan Davis, Oscar Ramirez, Tamir Rice, or any of the other men, women, or children gunned down by cops. But police and community relations might still be a concern in your city or neighborhood. Maybe you did not lose your home in the big foreclosure blowout in 2008 or you are not unemployed. But perhaps money is still tight, and every month finds you struggling to put food on the table. Whatever your sources of stress are, consider doing the following to impact the roots of these problems and finally make some headway in relieving your stress.

Do the work to understand the issue(s).

With the vast amount of information on the Internet, via libraries, bookstores, and other information sources, it’s easier than ever to get at least a basic understanding of the pivotal issues affecting your community. If your child’s education keeps you up at night, go to the central administration office of your school district and grab copies of the quarterly newsletters. These publications are chock full of information on the strategic priorities of the district, data on teacher qualifications and performance, and student performance by school within the district. They also usually provide website addresses for the state Department of Education, and contact information for executive leadership and policy makers. Refuse to be deterred by barriers like not being able to attend PTO/PTA meetings during the day. Connect with other parents and caregivers with similar schedules, arrange your own meetings, and select a representative to collect the group’s concerns and availability to help with the problems, and email them to school and/or district leadership. 

Learn how to be an effective advocate.

The Texas Rangers organization has a saying: One Riot, One Ranger, meant to convey that any Ranger is sufficiently trained, experienced, and knowledgeable to handle situations so that each problem can be solved by just one of them. Aim to be the kind of person who is a skilled problem solver. The key to effective advocacy is to understand that every issue is at its core a person or group of people who need help. It’s also important to understand the effective use of emotions, influence, and negotiation. A protest, march, or rally—even good ones—won’t solve issues at the grassroots level. A skilled advocate knows the proper role of various change tactics and when to use each one. Find a workshop or class, or if money is tight, borrow a book from the library; invest in training to become a good champion for your children, neighborhood, and community.

Shift from a passive consumer mindset to an engaged actor.

As you consider ways you can work to eliminate the sources of stress, ask and honestly answer these questions:

How long has it been/Have I ever done a concrete action that addresses an issue that causes me chronic stress?

Do I know the leaders and policy makers who govern in my city/community/state? Have I ever contacted any of these people to express my views and/or offer my time to work on an issue?

Do I contribute money to any groups or organizations with practical expertise in my stressor issued? Can I name at least three such groups or organizations?

Have I taken any positive, concrete action based on something I’ve read, seen, or participated in the last six months?