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Stress

Self-Care for the Chronic and Demoralizing Stress of Racism

For many people of color, self-care can feel just out of reach.

Key points

  • Chronic and cumulative stress can have a profound negative impact on mental and physical health.
  • Self-care can include strategies to improve wellness and personal initiatives to promote well-being, thereby reducing stress.
  • Few people of color use self-care to combat the stress of racism, but self-care can be empowering.

As a person of color, we always are told, “You have to work two times harder than the average white person to get to where they are,” so, I’m often always connected to my email. Even if I go on vacation, I’m often connected, still responding, and I’ve had to be very intentional of just putting my phone away, turning my email off when I do go away and just focusing on being in the moment whether I’m with my friends or with family (Quaye et al., 2019).

Chronic and cumulative stress can have a profound impact on a broad range of health outcomes. Self-care is necessary for recovery from all types of physical and emotional insults, and is essential for human well-being (Hansson et al., 2005), yet for many people of color, self-care is seen as an indulgence that is not permitted or that lies just out of reach.

Self-care can include many strategies to improve wellness (often with reference to needed medical care). Here we focus on personal initiatives to promote well-being. This may include fitness, relaxation, enjoyable personal pursuits, sports, taking time off work, shopping, hobbies, massage, individual psychotherapy, aromatherapy, travel for fun, listening to music, and so on. Self-care can also include getting away from everyday stressors, like turning off the phone or unplugging from stressful social media.

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Racism can cause stress in people of color.
Source: Fizkes/Shutterstock

People of Color and Self-Care

Although self-care is needed to recover from mental and physical unwellness, very few people of color use self-care to combat the stress of racism (Jacob et al., 2021). Although people of color often do reach out to each other in times of stress, more self-focused activities seem to be off the table. Many feel they cannot relax or pursue pleasurable activity or else they might be judged as lazy or undeserving, and so we see the paradoxical John Henry effect instead—people who work even harder in the face of stressors to the point of physical collapse.

But unapologetic acts of self-care need not be vilified. In fact, self-care can be framed as an act of empowerment in the face of racist social attitudes that may label such behaviors as selfish or indulgent when enjoyed by people of color. Audre Lorde underscores the power inherent in self-care in the face of oppression in her essay, A Burst of Light: Living with Cancer, where she writes, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

No empirical literature has examined the merits of self-care for coping with the stress of everyday racism. There are, however, a handful of qualitative studies that mention self-care for racial stress. Quaye and colleagues (2019) interviewed 35 Black educators who described their own strategies for coping with the strain of chronic exposure to racism. One writes:

As professionals, it’s not something that we always do. This year, one of my goals for myself is I really wanted to practice self-care and to go talk to somebody about some of the situation I’ve been through and things that I’ve gone through and just to be able to get it out. I think that it’s good to vent to your peers but having somebody that you can just dump it on is very helpful. (Quaye et al., 2019)

Another describes an unapologetic and de-stigmatizing approach, advising:

Tak[e] care of yourself and [do] not feel bad about that. My staff knows, and even my boss knows, that when it’s 3:30, I’m out of here. I’m going to therapy. And I’m honest, I say, “I’m going to therapy.” And I tell my students, “I’m going there because I need to work some stuff out. And I will be back” (Quaye et al., 2019).

Similarly, Holder et al (2015) interviewed 10 Black women managers in corporate America facing racial microaggressions in the workplace. Self-care strategies included taking a vacation, engaging in physical activity, reading for fun, and spending time with loved ones. Unfortunately, getting therapy for race-based stress was considered a last resort.

Getting Away for Recuperation and Well-Being

In American culture, there seems to be an attitude that only certain people are deserving of self-care or that self-care must be earned. Accordingly, North Americans spend far more hours engaged in paid labor than Europeans, and United States is the only developed country in the world without a single legally required paid vacation day or holiday.

 ESB Professional/Shutterstock
German researchers found recuperation at a hot spring resort reduces stress a year later.
Source: ESB Professional/Shutterstock

But everyone deserves and needs some time off. For those with chaotic lives and stressful jobs, time away from daily stressors can be particularly important. In many European countries, people experiencing workplace burnout routinely take a few weeks off to recuperate at a relaxing Alpine mineral hot spring, with the cost covered completely by health insurance. Indeed, German researchers have found that patients undergoing a traditional “Kur” (recuperation at an all-inclusive hot spring resort) found long-term positive effects that lasted over a year afterwards, including a reduction in pain and increase in overall well-being (Leuchtgens et al., 1999; Maretzki, 1987). Likewise, the Japanese art of shirin-yoku, or walking through a natural evergreen or cedar forest, has been found to decrease stress-biomarkers, increase natural killer cells, and enhance the expression of anti-cancer proteins. These positive effects are due in part to aromatherapy from aerosol phytoncides released from trees (Antonelli et al., 2019).

Self-Care on a Budget

Given that racism contributes to limited time and fewer resources, depending on one’s situation, the ability to make time for self-care can be difficult—especially for working-class people who may have to choose between taking time for self, working to make ends meet, or caring for loved ones. As such, many people of color cannot afford to take a Kur. When this is the case, one may need to be creative on how self-care might be incorporated in everyday life. For those without the means to go to an Alpine retreat, even spending a few hours in nature can facilitate healing.

Self-care in the form of guided meditation is easy and free. Dr. Candace Nicole developed a Black Lives Matter guided meditation with themes of mindfulness, affirmation, and loving-kindness. The meditation is just under 20 minutes long and includes affirmations specific for those seeking healing from racial trauma.

For people dealing with ongoing racism in their surroundings, time alone can be particularly important, and there is nothing wrong with taking time for yourself to recover. This means limiting exposure to racism and avoiding places where you know or suspect people will mistreat you. The idea is not to avoid these places or people forever, but to provide needed time for recovery and healing. Time away is an excellent way to jump-start self-care. But sometimes environmental stressors are so severe that a larger change is needed, which might require changing jobs, homes, or social groups.

Just Do It

Racial stress is caused by larger social forces which are not the fault of the individual, but nonetheless require our attention to manage. Making any kind of change can be difficult, even when those changes mean doing good things for ourselves. It can help to decide at the start of each week what types of self-care will be conducted and when, and then put these activities into one’s schedule and prioritize it, just like any appointment or meeting. For more people of color to make use of self-care strategies, including a vacation or Kur, it may require longer-term planning, as well as tackling our own sense of worthiness and revisiting social notions of who is deserving of care and why.

References

Antonelli, M., Barbieri, G., & Donelli, D. (2019). Effects of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) on levels of cortisol as a stress biomarker: a systematic review and meta-analysis. International journal of Biometeorology, 63(8), 1117–1134. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00484-019-01717-x

Hargons, C., Malone, N. J., Montique, C. S., Dogan, J., Stuck, J., Meiller, C., ... & Stevens-Watkins, D. (2021). Race-Based Stress Reactions and Recovery: Pilot Testing a Racial Trauma Meditation. Journal of Black Psychology, 00957984211034281. https://doi.org/10.1177/00957984211034281

Holder, A. M. B., Jackson, M. A., & Ponterotto, J. G. (2015). Racial microaggression experiences and coping strategies of Black women in corporate leadership. Qualitative Psychology, 2(2), 164–180. doi: 10.1037/qup0000024

Leuchtgens, H., Albus, T., Uhlemann, C., Volger, E., Pelka, R. B., & Resch, K. L. (1999). Auswirkungen der Kneipp-Kur, einer standardisierten Komplextherapie, auf schmerz, Lebensqualität und medikamentenverbrauch: kohortenstudie mit 1-jahres-follow-up [Effects of Kneippism, a standardized complex therapy, on pain, quality of life and use of medicines: cohort study with a one-year follow-up]. Forschende Komplementarmedizin, 6(4), 206–211. https://doi.org/10.1159/000021249

Maretzki, T. W. (1987). The Kur in West Germany as an interface between naturopathic and allopathic ideologies. Social Science & Medicine , 24(12), 1061–1068. https://doi.org/10.1016/0277-9536(87)90021-9

Quaye, S., Karikari, S. N., Allen, C. R., Okello, W., & Carter, K. D. (2019). Strategies for practicing self-care from racial battle fatigue. JCSCORE, 5(2), 94–131. https://doi.org/10.15763/issn.2642-2387.2019.5.2.94-131

Wyatt, J. P., & Ampadu, G. G. (2021). Reclaiming self-care: Self-care as a social justice tool for black wellness. Community Mental Health Journal, 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10597-021-00884-9

Jacob, G., Williams, M. T., Faber, N., & Faber, S. (2021). Gender differences in coping with racism: African American experience and empowerment. In E. Guerrero (Ed.), Effective Elimination of Structural Racism. Intech Open. ISBN: 978-1-83969-283-3. http://dx.doi.org/10.5772/intechopen.99930

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