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Unrealistic expectations placed on the "Strong Black Woman" take a significant toll on their mental and physical health

February 15, 2022

People often label Black women first and primarily as “strong.” While they may use the term with good intentions, it actually perpetuates racial discrimination. And Black women’s relationship with the term is also complex. Many report wearing the term as a form of armor, used to protect them from the stresses of daily racial discrimination.

That strength takes many forms: putting others before self, suppressing emotions to appease others, resisting vulnerability and striving for success instead of resting. Yet, striving to succeed can only get a person so far when age-old systemic barriers block the way to achieving that success.

These unrealistic expectations create stressors for Black women, and those stressors take a significant toll on their mental and physical health. Complications include obesity, high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, anxiety and depression — all of which Black women experience at a disproportionate rate compared to other races.

Though the responsibility shouldn’t fall on Black women to resolve this issue themselves, they can take steps to protect their mental health. Meanwhile, others can help by being an ally and being empathetic to the daily struggles Black women face. Broaden the way you think about and define Black women by embracing descriptors such as: assertive, gentle, intelligent, loving, funny, determined, passionate. Most importantly, see Black women as human beings and not some type of superwoman.

And society as a whole — from government agencies to private companies, police departments to healthcare systems — needs to address racial discrimination head-on and create more equitable interventions.

For now, Black women, here are five tips to help you prioritize your mental health while the rest of society catches up.

  1. Rest

Give yourself permission to rest. Don’t plan to do anything during that time, and don’t feel guilty for not being productive — or think of the time as productive in a different way: enabling yourself to re-energize. Rest can take a variety of forms: getting out of bed later than usual, going to bed earlier than you normally would, binge-watching movies or your favorite TV show, relaxing in a hot bath, reading on the couch, playing your favorite music, burning candles, etc. In order for you to show up in all areas of your life, you must make sure you have the energy to do so, by getting adequate rest.

2. Connect with friends or family

Connect with the people you love and enjoy. Have a family fun night or call your friends to schedule a dinner date or a fun activity that you all enjoy. Having community greatly benefits your mental health, with multiple studies showing that social support staves off depression and improves mental well-being.

  1. Healthy eating

Believe it or not, your food choices can impact your mental health. Sugar, fried and processed foods can lead to inflammation throughout the body and brain, which can increase your risk for anxiety, depression and low moods. Instead focus on eating plenty of fruits and vegetables along with foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and nuts, to boost your mental health. Dark green leafy vegetables in particular are rich in healthy nutrients like vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta carotene, which are crucial for the proper function of your brain and nervous system. Eating healthy can help improve your mood, concentration and help you feel more alert.

  1. Set healthy boundaries

Black women must remove the invisible superwoman cape in order to live a longer, healthier life. Making others a priority over oneself has proven to be detrimental to Black women’s mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Start setting healthy boundaries by saying no.  Saying yes frequently to doing things for others means that you are saying no to yourself and your need for rest. Make yourself a priority by making your yeses precious.

  1. Practice healthy coping skills

When challenges arise, healthy coping skills make a major difference in how you meet those challenges. Skills like meditation, deep breathing, listening to music, exercising and grounding techniques teach you to slow your mind, so you can respond to stressors with an awareness of what is happening in the present moment, rather than reacting instinctively based on emotion. You can practice these coping skills for as little as five minutes or an hour or more. These coping skills are helpful for those experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression to help decrease symptoms.