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A prescription to cope with race-related stress

Due to heightened awareness of police brutality and killings of minorities across the country the past few years have brought increased attention to racial/ethnic tensions in the United States. For many who believed (because the country elected an African American President in 2008) that we lived in an era of a colorblindness where racial/ethnic minorities were no longer targets of racism and discrimination the changing political landscape has broadened awareness of these societal injustices.

Since the election of President Donald Trump incidents of explicit racial discrimination and injustices appear to have increased. In just the first month after the 2016 election the Southern Poverty Law Center catalogued over 1064 incidents from news outlets and social media accounts of reports of racist taunts, hate-fueled attacks and other acts of intimidation against minority groups. Members of non-marginalized and/or majority populations (White’s, etc.) were jolted into a rude awakening the morning of November 9, 2016 and were shocked into disbelief that a presidential candidate who, at the most encouraged racist dogma, and at the very least did nothing to discourage racist dogma amongst his supporters and staff, could rise to the level of the highest office in the United States.

I, as well as many of my Black colleagues and friends, upon arriving to our routine work and daily functions the morning following the election were approached by White friends and colleagues who expressed concern (some in tears) and inquired “how are you doing?” At first I was somewhat puzzled by such unusual expressions of concern for me and my wellbeing – and then I was reminded of the events of the previous evening… They were directing their expressions of concern towards me because they were in shock and didn’t understand why I wasn’t in shock! Some expressed that they weren’t sure how they were going to cope… More insightful colleagues had an Aha! moment of understanding and empathy and inquired, “Anita, how do you cope?” The timing appeared to be ripe for me to provide insight on my experience living as an African American female in an environment of explicit and implicit social injustices and racial micro-aggressions and macro-aggressions every single day of my life. Many readers similarly have shared experiences and have developed particular skillsets regarding how to cope with these shameful, yet common-place race-related stressors. However, many in our community have not nurtured positive coping skills to shelter them from emotional states of hopelessness and despair and physical states of distress that such racist stressors can provoke.

The purpose of this article is not to review all of the varied racist situations and events that occur within our society, nor to discuss in detail the harmful impact of these egregious acts and behaviors. Instead its intent is to provide Self-Care tools and skills with which to counter and combat the negative impact of race related stress on our overall well-being. I hope the following strategies will be useful to you:

Pay attention to your Nutrition & Diet: The biochemical benefits of vitamins and minerals from natural foods like fruit, nuts, whole grains, legumes and vegetables on the functioning of our brain and structure of our bodies is not an accident. Fruits, grains, legumes, and vegetables are rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals that are natural pharmaceuticals in helping to reduce the impact that stress has on our bodies, minds and souls. So when our bodies, minds and souls are functioning collaboratively and efficiently we are better prepared to respond effectively to situational and cumulative stressors.

Get some type of Exercise every single day: We all know that engaging in physical exercise daily is beneficial to our health. What most don’t realize is that we don’t need to engage in strenuous exercise in order to obtain benefits from exercise. Simply walking 10-15 minutes daily can improve an individual’s sense of well-being and improve cognitive and brain functioning, which subsequently enhances one’s ability to combat daily stress.

Drink plenty of Water: Water is both life-sustaining and life-giving. If we don’t consume enough water our level of alertness decreases due to dehydration. An easy tip to determine how much water one should consume is half of one’s body weight in ounces. For example, if an individual weighs 170 pounds, then she would consume 85 ounces per day in water. Our brains and organs need to be constantly hydrated to confront daily life stressors as well as race-related stressors.

Go out in the Sunlight: The sun is central to our well-being and health. Without sunlight, nothing in our world would survive. Deficiencies in natural sources of Vitamin D (that only sunlight can provide) have been shown to lead to physical illnesses as well as emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression. There is no need to sunbathe! Just expose yourself to the Vitamin D that they sun rays provide for 10-15 minutes a day. The benefits are felt even on most partly cloudy days! So when you need to calm your nerves go outside and lift your head to the sun.

Breathe in fresh Air: Fresh air soothes the nerves and breathing in fresh air improves our sense of well-being and leads to tranquilization and relaxation. Breathing in fresh air also improves the functioning of the brain, which allows us to think more effectively. Unfortunately, most of us breathe too shallow to obtain many of the benefits fresh air and oxygen to have positive effects. Taking tense shallow breaths communicates to our nervous system that there is danger and causes our bodies to tense and release harmful hormones. Furthermore, lack of fresh air leads to fatigue, drowsiness and irritability. On the other hand, inhaling deeply causes our bodies to relax and open up. It is impossible to be upset if you are breathing slow and deep. When breathing take to deep breaths, breathing into your abdomen and letting the air out of your stomach and chest through your mouth. Just a few deep breaths throughout the day will have an immediate impact on your mood and your ability to be less reactive to stressors.

Get sufficient Rest: It is essential, both for our physical as well as mental functioning that our body are allowed to restore itself through restorative sleep. Adequate restorative rest reduces stress, improves concentration and alertness, improves memory, and decreases risk for depression. Key to restorative rest is following a sleep hygiene regimen where a regular bed and wake time schedule is maintained.

Be Temperate: Limit or reduce completely your intake of caffeine, tobacco, alcohol and any other types of drugs as these substances can decrease one’s ability to reason effectively and respond appropriately to stressful situations and environments. By abstaining from these substances individuals will benefit from calm nerves, clear minds, unimpaired judgment, and a keen perception.

Trust in Divine Power: Exercising trust and faith in a divine power through meditation and communion is important. When we fail to focus on a Divine Source worry, anxiety, doubt, and fear arise. These negative emotions release neurochemicals and hormones that can do much damage to the body. However, focusing and meditating on a Divine Source decreases depression and increases optimism. So when you are faced with racist stressors meditate on your Divine Source to quiet your mind.

Build a community of Support: Surround yourself with like-minded positive family and friends. Talking with and spending time with supportive friends and family is an effective way of releasing stress as well as recognizing that you are not alone in your experience of race-related stress.

Empower yourself: Find ways to combat racism and discrimination by finding a positive outlet by getting involved in a political or activist cause, writing a blog or getting involved in stimulating online group discussions.

Laugh daily: “Laughter (sometimes) is the best medicine”. Laughter reduces stress hormones and increases feel good endorphins in the body. Furthermore, laughter can increase one’s overall sense of well-being. So get online and google comedy sketches if you can’t go to a comedy show. Find a friend to laugh with! Watch your favorite sitcom on television. When it comes to stress relief, giggles and guffaws are a required prescription.

These Self-Care strategies when practiced and exercised daily will become regular life coping mechanisms that will enhance your body, mind and soul’s ability to combat the race-related stressors that unfortunately are systemically embedded into the structure of our society.

Shalom!

Anita Fernander, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Behavioral Science at the University of Kentucky’s College of Medicine. She is also the College of Medicine’s Interim Diversity & Inclusion Officer. She is Founder & Chair of the Lexington-Fayette County Health Disparities Coalition. Her email contact is: afern2@uky.edu.

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