The past few days have not been easy for America. Within less than 48 hours, filmed footage of not one, but 2 black men being murdered at the hands of law enforcement have flooded our Facebook feeds and made national news throughout the country. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile will never celebrate another birthday, never enjoy another sunset, and never see their families again. For the majority of Americans, the news of their killings is troubling but not particularly devastating – a sad story at worst, or maybe even an unfortunate and tragic mistake at best. For black Americans however, these two events have rubbed salt into an already festering wound.
As a psychiatrist, I’ve been asked to offer some advice on how to foster resilience in the face of these sorts of tragedies. I’ll start off by saying that enduring the after effects of over 300 years of slavery followed by a subsequent 150 years of systemic racism and systematic oppression has already made us incredibly resilient. Resilience is not something that we as black people are currently lacking. What we are lacking is a plan.
The problem with the nature of our resilience is that it is often reactionary – bad things happen and we try our best to figure out a way to deal with the consequences. For some of us, those ways of dealing are positive and self-affirming while for others, those coping strategies are often negative and self-destructive. Matthew 7:24 makes reference to the wise man who built his house upon a rock. When the winds blew and the rains fell, his house stood firm because it was built on a solid foundation. When we make a commitment to self-care, we are making a commitment to building on a solid physical and emotional foundation that will allow us to weather any storm.
What are the fundamentals of proper self-care?
1) Get Enough Sleep! – Your body and your brain cannot function without adequate sleep. Being sleep deprived can actually impact the areas of the brain that are responsible for making decisions, solving problems, controlling emotions and coping with change. Without adequate sleep, the more limbic or primitive part of your brain is more likely to be the part of your brain that is in control. When this happens, you are more likely to respond to challenges from a place of anger rather than from a place of rational, righteous indignation. How much sleep is the right amount? It varies from person to person but you always want to aim for a minimum of 6-8 hours of solid sleep nightly.
2) Move Your Body – Physical exercise is so important in helping maintain emotional balance. Studies have shown that just 20 minutes of exercise 4 times weekly is actually as effective as an antidepressant in mild to moderate cases of depression. We also know that mindful moment like yoga, tai chi, dance and even martial arts can strengthen the connections in the area of the brain that allows you to have a finite sense of time. People who struggle with overcoming trauma often live in a constant state of heightened fear and anxiety because their brains have not been able to properly deliver the message to their bodies that the danger has passed. Their brains and bodies are essentially ‘stuck’ in the past.
3) Choose Your Thoughts Wisely – Did you know that the average American is estimated to have an average of 50,000 thoughts in a single day? For most of us, about 65% of those thoughts are negative. The nature of trauma is that it robs you of your ability to imagine the possibility of a better future or different outcome. When we allow ourselves to become stuck in externalizing blame rather than mobilizing resources, we rob ourselves of our ability to actively manifest change. Yes, there is blatant injustice in the world. Yes, people of color have historically been systematically brutalized, beaten, murdered and oppressed. Yes, it is important to name these things however it is also important to recognize the true work only BEGINS with the label – it doesn’t end there. Labeling injustice not only allows us to acknowledge the fact that it exists, but more importantly allows us to imagine the possibility of dismantling those structures that allow it to exist in the first place. All action begins with a thought. We need to choose our thoughts wisely.
4) Eat Real Food – I cannot stress this enough. The best protection that you have against the ravaging effects of daily exposure to toxic stress is fueling your body a variety of colorful, nutritious, whole foods. A general rule of thumb is that if something comes in a bag, a box or a can, it probably should not go into your body. When we eat foods that are high in sugar content or foods that trigger inflammation in the body (wheat and dairy are the primary offenders for a good number of people) our brains release chemical messengers called pro-inflammatory cytokines. People with high levels of these chemicals in their brains are more likely to struggle with depression, more likely to have symptoms of anxiety and are more likely to have physical symptoms like sluggishness and fatigue. Make an effort to commit to avoiding processed foods and refined sugars. Your brain and body will thank you.
5) Know Your Limits and Know When to Get Help – This is a big one – especially for those of us who may work in environments where we are one of a few or perhaps even the only person of color. Please know that you are not alone and there are plenty of people out there who understand and are able to offer support. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your support network to talk things out when needed. It’s also important to recognize that there is no shame in reaching out to a mental health professional for extra support when needed.
This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive or all-inclusive list but merely a starting point to get you on the path toward feeling your best and daring to thrive in the face of tragedy. If you’re interested in learning more or have suggestions for future blog posts, please feel free to let me know your thoughts by commenting below!
Be Well and God Bless,
Reba Peoples, M.D.