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  • Jeannie Lawrence MD

How To Deal With The Stress and Anger Of Racism: part 1

This week, I invited my husband to do a relaxation exercise with me. I told him the exercise was more specifically, a mindfulness meditation, which is a mental health practice that encourages awareness of one's body and present moment, to reduce feelings of stress. Talking about mental health over dinner is one of the "perks" my husband endures, being married to a psychiatrist.

I thought doing this exercise might bring a few moments of peace to our day, as between the COVID-19 pandemic and news of the relentless disregard for the lives of Black people in America, it had become increasingly stressful to live and even breathe.

I was only partially surprised, when he declined my invitation. I knew the idea of doing a “meditation” probably seemed strange to him. But I asked him anyway, “Why not"?

He sat without answering me for a few moments before finally saying, “Because I want to stay mad. It keeps me on my toes”.

See, while racism has been an ugly part of American life since the country's inception, the numerous accounts of racist violence toward black people in just the past few weeks alone, was re-opening unhealed wounds of racial trauma and a bringing a flood of painful emotions along with it.

That night we had been discussing the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man who died after multiple Minneapolis police officers pinned him to the ground, and one of those officers knelt with his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck, while he pleaded for his life, "I can't breathe".

The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor were fresh on our minds too, having occurred just weeks prior. It felt nearly impossible to catch a break from the painful trauma of watching black people murdered in cold blood by those in power, without any real justice being served.

My husband didn’t have to explain further about his emotional state. I understood.

Anger was the umbrella emotion beneath which lay all the core emotions we both were feeling -- fear, helplessness, shock, horror, disappointment, and deep, deep sadness at the state of our country.

Some may be surprised that a person in emotional pain may not actually be ready to feel better. Others will understand. My husband's response was a good example of a concept discussed frequently in psychotherapy called Resistance. It explains why a person who seemingly needs relief from distressing emotions, might avoid doing what would make them feel better; they subconsciously recognize that those painful emotions somehow serve them. My husband understood that while his emotions didn’t feel good, they were somehow necessary, and he wasn’t ready to let them go.

I told him that trying to cope with mindfulness or any other technique didn’t have to be about getting rid of our emotions. The feelings of stress are there on some level to protect us. When humans face danger, the amygdala, the part of our brain that processes emotion, signals a cascade of brain chemicals that put is in “fight or flight mode”. Our muscles tense, our heart rate increases, we breathe quicker and more shallow breaths. We become ready to either defend ourselves from danger or flee from it. He was right to point out that our feelings of stress serve an important function. It is unfortunately true that as a black man in America, staying on his toes is necessary to survive.

But here’s the thing about stress. While it protect us when we are threatened, sometimes, that stress response goes into overdrive, and stays “on” for extended periods even after the imminent danger has passed. After a while, chronic stress, chronic anger, chronic anxiety, and chronic sadness eat away at us physically and mentally. You may have been experiencing some of the signs yourself: we cannot sleep soundly, we overeat or under-eat, we cannot concentrate. Chronic stress weakens our immune system, it raises our blood pressure and contributes to heart disease.

Many have spoken about the total EXHAUSTION that so many of us have experienced lately. It is emotional stress wearing us down. If left unchecked, it can cause us to eventually break down, or lash out. It's important that we all learn ways to manage our stress.

Some will welcome this idea of extinguishing the stress and anger that come when we witness racism in action, and that's okay. Others may resist feeling better as my husband did, as they cling to what is "right" with those painful emotions, and that's okay too. After all, negative emotions are sometimes protecting us, keeping us in touch with our values and humanity, and pushing us toward positive change. For folks who feel this way, instead of trying switch off our emotions, another approach may be to dial them down. In other words, be willing to reduce emotional stress to levels that are low enough to keep you healthy; while still embracing the good parts of those difficult feelings.

Instead of trying switch off our emotions, another approach may be to dial them down.

Ask yourself, what is a difficult emotion I am feeling right now? Is it sadness? Anger? Frustration?

And on a scale of 0 to 100 percent, how much are you feeling that emotion? 100%?

Now, if you want to feel better but resist completely extinguishing that emotion right now, then ask, what percentage of this emotion do I want to keep? And how much of that emotion can I let go of? 50%?

The percentage you come up will be your goal, as you work toward reducing your stress levels. You don't have to dial your feelings down to zero percent, unless you want to. I will return in my next post with specific strategies to dial down those negative emotions so you can stay emotionally healthy while still honoring your most difficult feelings. Stay tuned.

We’ve got this,

Dr. Jeannie

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