Those expectations are compounded by our cultural expectations of “strong Black women,” she continues. “We are expected to be independent and not ask for help, keep our needs inside and not admit that we need help,” she says.
Dr. Gayle Porter, a clinical psychologist and co-director of the Gaston & Porter Health Improvement Center, says she is amazed at how reluctant Black women are to acknowledge that they’re stressed. “Strength means being able to acknowledge that you need help and support. That’s part of being strong,” she says.
Instead, Black women tend to deal with stress through destructive behaviors such as overspending, which can cause financial stress, or overeating, which can lead to obesity and diabetes.
“These are some of our brightest, hardworking, most intelligent, most loving women,” notes Porter. “We are dying at rates that are greater than any other group of women from heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke, so whatever it is that we’re doing is not working.”
Indeed. Black women develop high blood pressure – which could lead to strokes or heart attacks—at an earlier age than White women and have higher rates than their White counterparts. Although heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in general, Black women are more likely to die from the disease than women of other races. Breast cancer and diabetes also affect Black women at higher rates.
Porter is a co-founder, along with Dr. Marilyn Gaston, of the Prime Time Sister Circles, a 12-week program that helps Black women between the ages of 40 and 75 improve their health and deal with stress. The major stressors that women in the group have identified are health, financial stress and caregiving responsibilities, says Porter.
“We give sisters a safe space where they can learn how to identify stress, how to appropriately cope with it, how to reduce it if they can’t eliminate it, and learn how to function in an assertive way that will teach them how to take care of themselves and take care of other people,” she says.
The group teaches participants stress-management techniques such as deep breathing and encourages daily exercise. The women also have to keep a daily log of stressors.
“As Black women, we have to look at the relationships between how we are dealing with stress and the fact that we are dying,” says Porter. “Our folks don’t want to acknowledge how stressed they are, but it’s evident, and it impacts our entire community.”
(Lottie L. Joiner is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer and senior editor of The Crisis magazine. Follow her on Twitter.)