How the Black Community Can Balance Resilience and Self-Care
When Rochelle McAllister was about 6 months old, she was put into the foster care system. She lived in three different homes before age 5, then was adopted by a loving single woman. Two months shy of McAllister’s 16th birthday, her mother died after a short battle with cancer. Her aunt stepped in as caretaker, but the relationship was tumultuous and emotionally abusive.
Today, Rochelle, 45, is an accomplished lawyer in Chicago. She's also a clear example of someone who, despite having endured an early life that dealt her blow after blow, was able to weather the storms and thrive. Rochelle's ability to bounce back is not exactly a unique characteristic. It's a skill the Black community has honed for centuries.
Why Black Resilience Matters
Consider the COVID-19 pandemic, and all the fear and anxiety it unleashed. A 2020 study found that among adults in the U.S., the rate of depression increased from 8.5% pre-pandemic to just under 28% in the pandemic’s initial months. During this time and the subsequent two years spent living with the pandemic, the Black community has had to cope with economic hardship and a steep rise in unemployment resulting from the virus, while also having to face worse medical outcomes from COVID-19.
However, research reveals that Blacks fared better than others when it came to mental health during the pandemic, having suffered lower levels of both depression and anxiety. This type of resilience is not new to the Black community.
“There was a time in the not too distant past that Black people had to figure out how to either survive or succumb to the atrocities of chattel slavery, random lynchings, and decades of Jim Crow laws,” says Rheeda Walker, Ph.D., director of the Culture, Risk, and Resilience Lab at the University of Houston and author of The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health. “This culture of survival has indeed been passed down through the generations.”
In a word, the Black community has had to be resilient, which Walker describes as having the “demonstrable capacity to withstand external stressors, mishaps, crises, and various events or circumstances that could otherwise leave them paralyzed from the emotional tax of it all.”
The Connection Between Resilience and Self-Care
But being resilient does not mean being completely unaffected, nor does it mean showing zero emotion in the face of challenges. And, says Michele L. Owens, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and co-founder and partner in Sessions: Innovations in Psychology, there can be a tendency in the Black community to take a ‘don't show, don't tell’ approach to pain and struggle. “That's where our community has suffered more, in terms of our mental health and wellness, than we might have had we had a more balanced understanding that we can bounce back while also acknowledging pain and loss," she says.
McAllister agrees. “I'm so tired of being resilient. It's heavily weighted in my life to the point where the darker and the more painful—the human—aspects of me are minimized," she says. “I'm made to feel like a superhero who doesn’t have weak moments. So, when I hear [the word] resilient, I sometimes have a little bit of resentment toward it.”
In fact, according to Owens, people who tend to struggle more in the face of adversity are those who deny that these ordeals are painful. “You have to acknowledge that there's some pain and there are losses that are meaningful,'' Owens says.
And this is where self-care comes in. “Our fight or flight response is not a sustainable place from which to live day-to-day life,” explains Amanda Jurist, L.C.S.W., who specializes in child, adolescent, family, and adult psychotherapy. “So, while we are resilient people, we are still people and there is work to be done around processing the traumas that we have faced historically and continue to face today, so that we can move forward in our resilience in a grounded fashion.”
5 Keys to Boosting Black Resilience
Some research suggests that experiencing moderate amounts of adversity is good for our mental health and overall well‑being; but, says Charisse M. Williams, a leadership and well‑being coach and speaker who authored The Joy of Thriving While Black “If you have to deal with so much trauma and so much pain, it becomes harder and harder to come back to baseline and then be able to thrive.”
That’s why it's better to know which resilience practices, such as talking it out, prayer, journaling, yoga, or meditation, work for you, so you can have them at the ready when you need them, says Williams. Here are five steps you can take to shore up your resilience.
1. Engage Your Support Systems
Creating a safe space for the exchange of ideas and feelings is huge; so, whether through your church, your family, your therapist, or your BFFs in your Black Girls Run crew, look to create meaningful relationships. “It’s important to have relationships that allow you to feel understood, and that you have someone to turn to for help,” says Owens.
2. Tap into Your Cultural Identity
Research suggests that Black Americans who have a strong and positive sense of racial and cultural identity demonstrate better psychological well‑being. “Having a positive sense of self despite receiving negative messages to the contrary is powerful,” says Walker. “The eroding of cultural identity may be eroding important coping strategies, including accessing a much-needed community and engaging in renewing spiritual and religious practices.”
3. Observe What Makes You Feel Good
No, this isn’t about hedonism, but rather really observing the simple activities that bring you joy. Practicing yoga (where you slow things down, turn inward, move your body, and breath) or healthful eating (where you thoughtfully prepare food with meal prep and savor time spent cooking) are easy ways to incorporate self-care routines that can boost resilience.
Williams, who's also a certified yoga teacher, swears by her morning routine. “From the time I wake up, I'm feeding my psyche," she says. "My smart speaker wakes me up to a song that’s going to fuel my spirit inside and out.” Two of her go-tos: "I am Light" by India.Arie and "Three Little Birds" by Bob Marley. The point, Williams says, is to do things that give more than they take away. “We deserve to play, have fun, laugh, connect,” she says. “It's a really important part of the human experience. And key to our resilience, too.”
4. Take a Breath
If you're in a moment where you feel your anxiety rising and your fight or flight response kicking in when it's unwarranted, Jurist suggests turning to breathwork. “This allows your body and brain to regulate in a way that lets the brain know that you are not in actual danger,” she says, noting that she's incorporated the practice into her own life. “Breathwork is a great in-the-moment strategy, as well as a long-term practice that will benefit your all-around well‑being and health."
5. Get Outside
Find a green space and set aside some time to walk in nature. “It's been shown to keep the anxiety levels down and to help you with perspective,” Owens says. Studies suggest that spending time outdoors in green spaces may help improve self-esteem and mood.
Resilience is all about increasing our capacity to bend, not break. But that doesn't mean that you can, or should, shoulder every setback effortlessly. Too much will always be too much, no matter how strong you think you should be. As Walker reminds us: If you get to a place of persistent hopelessness about your circumstances that lasts a few weeks or longer, contact a mental health professional who can help you get back on track.
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