We all know it and have intimate experience with it. Books and books are written on the topic and how to manage it. Institutes have been created to study it. Its effect is as all-pervasive in our culture as gravity, weighing as down with its pressure. It’s been called the number one cause of death in the modern world.
Monday mourning heart attacks, a weakened immune system, stroke, cancer, substance abuse, weight loss or gain, hair loss, tired, irritable, depression, rage, burn-out, hyperactivity, inactivity, insomnia, anxiety, digestive problems, headaches, indecision, aches and pains, skin rashes, hot flashes, paranoia, and just not feeling good “in your own skin”.
I didn’t want to have to bring it up, but I couldn’t write a book about massage without talking about it…thy name is stress. Stress is no joke. I know too many that have checked out of this life because of it.
Say Ah! Now Take A Deep Breath and Just Relax!
Who remembers going to the dentist as a kid and the first thing the dentist said was, “Now just relax, open your mouth and say ah?” Not one of the more relaxing memories to look back on. Speaking of dentists, some of them now have fish aquariums in their lobbies since studies have shown that merely watching fish swim in an aquarium reduces blood pressure, anxiety, and relaxes the mind. From a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, moving or flowing water moves the energy in a room and brings cleansing, harmony and prosperity.
Our bodies have adapted to living in a state of constant anxiety, stress and stimulation, so much so, it affects every part of our body in ways we haven’t even thought of, until someone tells us…”just relax, slow down, let your body go, let your mind relax from the thoughts and images of the day. Just take a deep breath and a long sigh of ahhhhhh!” “Yeah, right! Where’s my cup of coffee, my energy drink and my cigarette?”
[Just a side note: It’s my theory that for people who smoke, the act of smoking is the only time when they are truly breathing fully and deeply from their diaphragm muscle, instead of their usual shallow breathing from the chest, and that this triggers their brain and body into the relaxation/pleasure mode and I believe that this is part of the addiction cycle, along with all those addictive chemicals. Unfortunately, along with that deep breath goes all those life-threatening toxins from the cigarette being dumped into the bloodstream, some even crossing the blood/brain barrier. Researchers at the UCLA Brain Research Institute found that nicotine causes selective degeneration and dehydration in the brain. Health researcher, health advocate and human rights activist, Dick Gregory places toxicity and dehydration as two of the three main causes for disease in the body. The two go hand in hand, with sleep deprivation the third on his list.]
“Don’t Push Me ‘Cause I’m Close to the Edge”
As an African American health practitioner, I’m very concerned with the health and wellness disparities in our communities. Much research is being done on the continuing health gap and the lack of access to quality healthcare and preventive care in our communities. The government statistics from the Office of Minority Health has outlined clearly the health picture of African Americans throughout the nation and it doesn’t look good. African Americans are on the top of the list for diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and stroke, all illnesses that are affected negatively by stress.
Doctors tell us just like the good and bad cholesterol, there is good and bad stress. The good stress, like the stress it takes to build a muscle, or from exercise, is good because it builds up the body and gives us energy. The bad stress is chronic and draining to the mind, body and spirit taking energy away from us and eventually weakens our immune system.
What determines what is good stress versus bad stress?
Shift happens, as in a change or shift in our lives. Sometimes we have a choice in how that change is going to happen, sometimes not. Stuff happens. “It is what it is.” Opportunity or Disaster? Lesson or Failure? Temporary or Pattern? Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Of course, there are degrees of stress: Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), the death of a loved one, divorce, or other traumatic loss or injury. Change of any kind is stressful, even if it’s a perceived good change like a new job, moving, new school, marriage, and pregnancy. Our perception of what happens and what that means for us, will decide whether we consider it good or bad stress. Our perception is how we will internalize it in our bodies, our behavior, our thoughts, our feelings, our speech, our actions, and our creative selves.
Our perception is not only effected by our own personal perception but societal perception and our families, and friends. There is even generational and ancestral perception. Rev. Dr. Michael Beckwith, Founder and Spiritual Director of the Agape International Spiritual Center, takes it even further when he speaks of the “race consciousness”, as in human race; those thoughts and perceptions that affect all human beings on the planet.
There is an old saying, “What doesn’t kill me will make me stronger!” Our bodies are effected not only by outside stimulation (Family, friends, media, work, school, our environment, and the world at large) but by internal stimulation (thoughts, food, drugs, hormones, and chemicals we ingest, and our feelings). Stress is the number one illness of our time reflected in physical and mental illness like heart failure, stroke, cancer, substance abuse, sexual problems, premature aging and domestic violence.
James Green, herbalist and author of the book, “The Male Herbal: Health Care for Men and Boys”, says that even our language reflects the effect of stress in our culture with words like, ‘up tight, high-strung, and strung out.” When we are stressed our whole body constricts, tightens ups, and our breathing becomes shallow. Green adds that stress exhausts our adrenal glands, liver and nervous systems resulting in chronic fatigue syndrome. For chronic conditions, Green suggests immune system tonic herbs such as Astragalus, Echinacea, Pau d’Arco and Myrrh and adaptogen herbs Ginseng, Licorice or Suma to support the adrenal glands. For acute nervous stress conditions he suggests Valerian Root, Chamomile, Skullcap, Lavender, Black Cohosh, and Cramp Bark herbs. It is always best to see both a Medical Doctor and an herbal practitioner for your symptoms to get a complete picture of what is going on with your body and to make sure there are no medical interactions if you are taking both pharmaceutical and herbal remedies.
Stress, The Struggle and Serenity: Keeping It Real Compared To What
For African Americans, we have been a culture within a culture, a nation within a nation, with a unique back-story, as articulated by W.E.B. Dubois. The research of the effects of racism on our well-being has been well documented including how health services (or the lack thereof), are delivered to our communities.
I think about my African ancestors that went through the savagery of enslavement, one of the most brutal and inhuman periods of crimes against humanity on a global scale on the planet. What could be more stressful than being an African in The Americas at that time? Some would argue being an African American in America today! Educator, author, and human rights activist Angela Davis says, “We are the embodiment of history, …we are living inside history and historical memory.”
Taking a historical perspective or rather looking at yourself and where you fit in a historical continuum, gives space for us to recognize our own challenges and opportunities in the context of a larger, wholistic way of looking at our lives and our life’s purpose.
The great historian, author and educator, John Henrik Clarke, said, “History is a clock that people use to tell their time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are, and who they are.” I would argue that part of our stress as Africans throughout the Diaspora is that we have not properly used that compass to orient ourselves to where we are, or who we are.
Stress Strategies and Wellness Rituals
The truth is, we do need to talk about our challenges, our problems, issues, and concerns, no matter how small and insignificant we or anybody else may think they are. It is through that process of talk, not whining or complaining, or seeing ourselves as the victim, but seeing the power inside of ourselves as the key to transform and heal the pain. As one of my African Spirituality teachers, Thelma Cameron, explained, “It is through this ‘initiatory process’, putting pen to paper, mind to idea, that we can knit ourselves back together, a new garment.”
We need to give ourselves the permission to talk about it, this “initiatory process”, like the diamond forged in fire from the coal ashes, for as writer, educator and human rights advocate, Alice Walker has said, “Anyone that demands your silence is not your friend.”
Well it wasn’t until I was a grown woman that I learned the meaning of that old southern saying, “she took to her bed”…so depressed and stressed that you don’t even want to get out of bed! It was times like that, that my yoga, prayer and meditation practice and receiving regular acupressure massages and acupuncture treatments saved me from myself.
Exercise is one of the biggest stress strategies that we can use. However, there are times when even putting one foot in front of the other just to walk seems impossible. On those days, if possible, get someone to give you a massage and get some acupuncture. One of the many benefits of massage and acupuncture includes the release of endorphins, also known as the runner’s high; it is the release of the body’s natural opiates to heal physical and emotional pain.
Give Thanks and Praise: Push that Pause Button!
While in college, I started practicing yoga and through that process learned how to relax and focus my mind and re-direct my negative thoughts of anxiety to more positive and affirmative thoughts and prayers of gratitude.
Staying in gratitude is key to having a healthy well-being that allows us the permission to say to ourselves, “I did a good job, or I’m a survivor, let me help others so that they don’t have to go through this, or I’ll do better next time, but now let me rest a bit and care for myself”.
Caring for ourselves is something that a lot of us haven’t done very well. Going without sleep, eating on the run, loving on the fly, sexin’ instead of caressing, giving too much to too many and not enough to ourselves, and turning the art of care giving into the co-dependency of care taking; that’s not a healthy way to live and a fast way to die, if not a physical death surely a spiritual death.
Bishop T.D. Jakes in his book, “He-Motions, Even Strong Men Struggle: Strength for Men, Solutions for Women”, says even Jesus knew when to take a break from his work citing the Biblical story of Jesus at Bethany at the house of Simon. (Matthew 26:6-11) Bishop Jakes says we must learn from Jesus’ example and learn to rest and care for ourselves and take time “to pray, to reflect, and to imagine” for surely our work will be there when we return!
Other strategies include: Go see a counselor about it, write and journal about it, sing about it, make movies and plays about it, teach about it, cry about it, scream about it, write poems about it, draw pictures about it, pray about it, dance about it, drum about it, create healing circles about it, teach our children about it, teach each other about it, meditate about it, and finally, go get a massage and release all negativity of that “straw that broke the camels back” and tried to break yours in the process.
Most importantly we need to listen. Listen to each other as an act of love and dare to imagine us into a new future with new healing stories to tell and share. Novelist, educator and media critic, Ishmael Reed, said once in an interview, “Black folks need witnesses.” Living in a society that says, “no, you didn’t see what you saw, so how can you possibly be feeling what you feeling”, we need to be witnesses for each other’s pain and our humanity. Heal our stories. Heal our pain. Heal the hurt and with it the anger. In that healing process, we can move from just “keeping it real” to “keeping us alive and well” and moving beyond “the struggle” to living in the possibility of the possible, for where there is breath all things are possible, all good is present and the moment is full of pure potential.
Now close your eyes and take deep breaths in through the nose, hold it for a couple of seconds then breathe out through the mouth. As you breathe in, imagine the energy of the earth rising up into your feet and as you hold the breath circulating throughout your body all the way to the top of your head. As you breathe out, imagine the energy of the sun radiating from the top of your head to the tips of your toes back into the earth. Repeat this breathing exercise (taking as long as you need) until you can feel and visualize the tension leaving your body. Feel and visualize yourself powered by the sun and yet grounded and connected to the earth.
Now you are ready to step into your relaxation and creativity. Now you are ready to manifest your good.
We are glistening, glittering diamonds.