Stress, Health and African American Women: A Black History Month Notation
by Carol J. Scott, M.D. for HuffingtonPost.com on 4/29/13
February is African-American History Month, an annual observance for remembrance of important people and events in the history of the African diaspora. This observance is the most visible legacy of the son of former slaves and scholar Carter G. Woodson who held a Masters Degree from University of Chicago and a Ph.D from Harvard University one hundred years ago in 1912. He pioneered defining a category of history related to ethnic culture and race.
African American women, stress and health: According to solid research, historically African American women are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of race-related stress, given their socially constructed identities as African Americans and as women. 1 These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that racial discrimination is a chronic stressor that can negatively impact the cardiovascular health of African Americans through pathogenic processes associated with serious negative reactive changes in blood pressure and heart rate. 2 African American women report more frequent encounters with everyday unfair treatment than Caucasian women. African American women who live in the city report a greater number of acute life events as stressors (divorce, marriage, job loss, etc) than Caucasian women. It’s no surprise that socioeconomic status, everyday experiences with unfair treatment and acute life events each make a significant contribution to differences in women’s health status.3
Coping with Stress:”Black women appear to handle stress somewhat differently from men or white women. Men are more likely to do battle with whoever or whatever is causing stress, or they simply remove themselves from the situation. Caucasian women seem more likely to find stress relief by devoting time to their children or seeking support and friendship from others.” Stress researcher Shelly Taylor calls this a “tend and befriend” response. According to Angela Barnet, Black women’s stress responses are intriguing; “we tend, befriend, mend, and keep it in.” 4
The role of religiosity and spirituality is highly cited when it comes to stress in African American women. A study focused on African American women suggests how religion helps: “(1) accepting reality, (2) gaining the insight and courage needed to engage in spiritual surrender, (3) confront and transcend limitations, (4) identify and grapple with existential questions and life lessons, (5) recognize purpose and destiny, (6) define character and act within subjectively meaningful moral principles, (7) achieve growth, and (8) trust in the viability of transcendent sources of knowledge and communication.” 5 The African Americans Women’s Voices Project gathered the stories of 400 women who spoke about their triumphs and challenges in Dr. Shorter-Gooden and Charisse Jones’ recently published book, Shifting – The Double Lives of Black Women in America.
Health Impact: Research suggests subtle mistreatment (micro-inequities) leads to a increased surges in diastolic blood pressure (DBP) for African American women but not white women. And those African American women who say racial discrimination is the cause of their mistreatment showed greater average reactive surge in blood pressure. 6Compared with Caucasian women, African-American women have an 85 percent higher rate of ambulatory medical care visits for high blood pressure. The rate of high blood pressure for non-Hispanic black females age 20 and older is 45 percent. Elevated blood pressure is a leading cause of stroke and as many as 20 percent of all deaths in hypertensive African-American women may be due to their high blood pressure. The authors found that for African American women higher degrees of Afro centric cultural values were associated with greater perceived stigma about counseling and greater self-concealment. 7 Women who were more overweight were experiencing more stress. Also, 50 percent of the women thought that stress negatively affected their weight-control behavior. Additionally, occupational stressors related to racism, sexism, and workload were major stressors for this group of women. 8 Like men and women of all ethnicities, constant and ongoing stressors damages feelings of being in control of your lives and makes you less resilient.
The Future: This blog shares historical and scientific data. It is not intended to stereotype or promote being ‘stuck’ in the past. This information should not to be misconstrued as applicable to all African American women. Quite the opposite. African American women are not monolithic and rightfully claim many identities which shape individual experiences of the world.
Finally, the good news is that Generation X, Millennials and the new Silent Generation are shaping a new world and texture which will allow this historical data to inform but not guide the future success, health and wellness of all Americans.
What’s your opinion? Do you think the experience of stress for women in contemporary American daily life is influenced by race and/or ethnicity?
T. M. Greer. Coping Strategies as Moderators of the Relation Between Individual Race-Related Stress and Mental Health Symptoms for African American Women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 2011; 35 (2): 215
2 Discrimination and unfair treatment: Relationship to cardiovascular reactivity among African American and European American women. Guyll, Max;Matthews, Karen A.;Bromberger, Joyce T.
Health Psychology, Vol 20(5), Sep 2001, 315-325.
3 A Schulz, B Israel, D Williams, E Parker, A Becker, S James, Social inequalities, stressors and self reported health status among African American and white women in the Detroit metropolitan area, Social Science & Medicine, Volume 51, Issue 11, 1 December 2000, Pages 1639-1653,
4 Angela Neal-Barnet. (2003) Soothe Your Nerves: The Black Woman’s Guide to Understanding and Overcoming Anxiety, Panic, and Fear. Simon & Shuster, inc. New York, NY.
5 Mattis, J. S. (2002), Religion and Spirituality in the Meaning-Making and Coping Experiences of African American Women: A Qualitative Analysis. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 26: 309-321.
6 Discrimination and unfair treatment: Relationship to cardiovascular reactivity among African American and European American women. Guyll, Max;Matthews, Karen A.;Bromberger, Joyce T.
Health Psychology, Vol 20(5), Sep 2001, 315-325.
7 Wallace, B.C., & Constantine, M.G. (2005). Africentric cultural values, psychological help-seeking attitudes, and self-concealment in African American college students. Journal of Black Psychology, 31(4), 369-385
8 Walcott-McQuigg JA. The relationship between stress and weight-control behavior in African-American women. J Natl Med Assoc. 1995;87(6):427-432.