By Mylika Scatliffe,
AFRO Women’s Health Writer
According to Dictionary.com, the definition of stress is “a specific response of the body to a stimulus, such as fear or pain, that upsets or interferes with the normal physiological balance of an organism.”
In simple terms, it is a physical, mental or emotional tension or tension.
Senior Vice President and Clinical Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Allegheny Health Network/Highmark Health, Dr. Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew, wants to lift the lid on toxic stress and its impact on health black women.
Larkins-Pettigrew is also an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Case Western Reserve University.
Dr. Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew has been at the forefront of healthcare as a global leader and is a champion of diversity and inclusion. An internationally renowned expert on cultural humility in health, Dr. Larkins-Pettigrew has spent her 30-year career engaging marginalized communities and developing programs that promote equity of outcomes for vulnerable patients and the reduction of socio-political barriers to care.
She is particularly interested in the education and empowerment of women, especially those pursuing a career in medicine. Dr. Larkins-Pettigrew is committed to educating and empowering women, as well as helping shape the next generation of talented physicians.
What is toxic stress?
Toxic stress is chronic stress that causes physiological, psychological, social and economic damage. is continuous and alters your ability to navigate wellness, as defined by Larkins-Pettigrew. Dealing with wellness and mental health issues has been a burden on women, especially black women, for ages.
“We embrace our history and try to move on while living our lives with joy, but continue to struggle with issues of toxic stress,” Dr Larkins-Pettigrew said.
Mental health and mental illness in the black community is masked by longstanding stigma. Even as slaves, our ancestors could do nothing less than strength or resilience or they risked being whipped, sold to their families, or murdered.
Slaves weren’t really considered human. In the age of Jim Crow, the risks remained largely the same if they dared to use anything other than gentleness and a conciliatory tone in response when speaking to a white person.
Now we need to focus on maintaining physical well-being which is significantly affected by psychiatric well-being. Maintaining mental health is a complex issue for black women because we try to do this in a country that is built on structural racism and oppression. Toxic stress seeps into all areas of our lives. There is stress when we try to conceive and carry babies to term knowing that we might die or our babies might not see their first birthday. Stress starts early in life. Studies show that black girls between the ages of 9 and 12 are 60% more likely to commit suicide than white girls of the same age. The police are now called on black children in school, as early as kindergarten, and they are taken away in handcuffs to have tantrums or they face expulsion. “I raised three black boys who are now black men, and I still worry about where they are in this country, who they will be exposed to, and what decision someone else will make about them. ‘they are worthy to be on this planet,’ says Dr Larkins-Pettigrew.
Mental health continues to be a struggle in the face of poverty and wealth disparities. Black women who are educated and perhaps more successful economically still suffer from daily micro- and macro-aggressions.
All of this stress is internalized and manifests in physiological breakdown – heart disease (the number one cause of death for black women), obesity, diabetes.
How to protect yourself from toxic stress?
Protection starts with us. Before we take care of someone else, we must first value and nurture ourselves. We must not internalize the racist opinions that others have of us. We need to maintain our health by keeping up with breast exams, annual medical checkups, and well woman visits, not sacrifice them for everyone else’s work and care.
“We must also indulge in our social welfare,” said Dr Larkins-Pettigrew emphatically. “Bring people into your life who will lift you up, help you with your village, who can recognize when you’re out of character, not eating or sleeping or when you’re making fun of people!” Dr. Larkins-Pettigrew also reminds us to choose romantic partners wisely. We need to be strategic about who we fall in love with, making sure it’s someone who shares the same values and goals, and who will offer support and actually function as a partner. Trying to make a living with someone you disagree with will be a constant struggle.
Protection against the toxic effects of stress extends to our children. We do this by protecting them from anyone who will put them down, knowing who they associate with, asking questions about their friends and what their teachers tell them.
How to defend yourself in the medical world?
When searching for healthcare practitioners, it is imperative to have the intention to have your needs met. Choose someone you can trust. Don’t be afraid to ask specific questions to see if they can relate to your specific needs and issues. When caring for you, a practitioner must make you the center of the universe. Mental health care providers should ask you questions about your physical condition and vice versa.
When you see a doctor for a specific issue, especially a serious one, have someone come with you as an ally to help you navigate visits and be another pair of ears. Solicit community input because there are so few mental health practitioners of color.
Finally, take care of yourself. We hear about self-care and think of things like spa days, brunches, and girls’ trips. These are all good options, but self-care can be done without spending money. It could just be spending time with yourself. Exercise, read, meditate or just be quiet. We don’t have to accept toxic stress and its effects as our normalcy.
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