If you are African American living in this country, no one needs to tell you that you experience chronic stress. The stress of unequal and inequitable treatment by law enforcement, lack of access to resources and discriminatory practices by financial institutions, under-resourced communities, differential treatment by employers (if you are fortunate enough to get a job) is a constant threat the ability to survive and thrive. Historically, African Americans have been the last hired, were scapegoats in organizations, and generally the first fired.
The continuous very public incidents of the wanton murder of black and brown people have brought awareness of this collective trauma front and center in a very visceral way.
So you know you live with chronic stress, but did you know that chronic stress is one of the leading causes of illness, premature aging and death?
SHORTENED TELOMERES LEAD TO CELLULAR AGING, ILLNESS & PREMATURE DEATH
Researchers have been examining the link between chronic stress and DNA. They have found that the protective casing at the ends of chromosomes known as telomeres shorten when subject to chronic stress.
In 2009, Elizabeth Blackburn and Carolyn Greider were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery of how the chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase, which counteracts damage to telomeres.
Chronic stress is now on the map as one of the most consistent predictors of shorter telomere length. The type of stress determines how big its effect is. Exposures to multiple early life adversities have the largest effects.
A study, led by Dr. David H. Chae, an associate professor at Auburn University examined how changes in racial discrimination affect the telomeres over time.
African Americans who reported more racial discrimination over a 10-year period showed signs of faster aging at the cellular level during the same time frame. Findings from the study are available in the National Institutes of Health Library - Auburn Study.
“This study adds to evidence that racial discrimination contributes to accelerated physiologic weathering and health declines among African Americans through its impact on biological systems and effects on telomere attrition,” reported Chae.
The health disparities among African Americans are the result of the ongoing experiences of racism. The traumatic effect of the massacre of millions on the African Continent. the enslavement of African people beginning in the 17th century, and the continued terror and discrimination in the centuries and decades that followed on this continent are all connected to health issues and premature deaths of members of the African American community today.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
Some woke voices in the community have spoken about how these horrific actions, like the murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Brianna Taylor and countless others, including Daunte Wright and the continuous replay of them in the media traumatizes the community again and again. The fear and the rage becomes embedded in the brain as a program that takes a toll on the physical body.
Our brains are constantly looking for threats to our survival. When bodies experience years of chronic stress arousal, the effects override normal aging, making our telomeres look like they are from a significantly older person. These shortened, frayed telomeres make the body more susceptible to diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and dementia.
How can we change these patterns and effects? We have the responsibility to make radical self-care a priority if we are ever to change these life-diminishing dynamics. How do we do this?
NINE STEPS TO DISRUPT THE HEALTH EFFECTS OF SYSTEMIC RACISM
1) Control what we let in. There is a psychological balancing act. Be informed and engaged but not emotionally entangled. Advocacy, voting, and demanding accountability are important. Doing so from an empowered state of consciousness and not victimhood, however, is more effective. Violence of all forms is like a virus that infects the mind. Watching movies, news, social media posts that contain gratuitous violence is not helpful. Also, watching depictions of our people as criminals, thugs, unreliable, dishonest caricatures undermines how we think about ourselves.
2) Unravel the messages of self-hatred that are embedded in systemic racial oppression. Be willing to look within to see if you have internalized messages of being “less than.” These messages come in many disguises, including feelings that you are unworthy, undesirable, unlovable, lazy, incapable, criminal, ignorant, don’t belong, and disdain for your physical features - nose, hair, skin color, etc.
3) Examine how you communicate with others like you and those who appear different. Do you use disempowering language about yourself, your partner, your family, your community? Are you deferential to groups outside of your racial groups? Are you overly defensive or abrasive? Are you constantly censoring yourself in the presence of others?
4) Listen to cues from your body. What role does food play in your life? Do you eat food that your parents and grandparents ate? How does your body feel after you eat? How much do you eat? When do you choose to eat? Eating is to nourish the body when we are hungry. Emotional eating is not about hunger. It occurs when we are lonely, angry, tired or worried. What about water – are you hydrated enough? Water (not soda or juice) is the elixir that keeps the body functioning properly.
5) Connect with nature. Do you exercise, walk, run, swim, garden? Do your bare-feet touch ever touch the ground? Every cell of your body is powered by what is essentially a rechargeable battery called the Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) molecule produced by your mitochondria. It stores and transfers energy in the cells. The sun and the electromagnetic field of the earth function to electrically charge the cells in the body and support circulation. Being out in nature is good medicine.
6) Align your sleep pattern with nature. How many hours do you sleep? When do you sleep? In Traditional Chinese Medicine, vital energy or “chi” circulates through the organs in the body in two-hour intervals. The vital energy in the meridian is at its highest point during these times. There are optimum times to eat, sleep, rest exercise, etc., to properly regenerate the body.
7) Feel your feelings. Can you become an observer of your inner state without projecting your emotions onto others or being pulled downward into depression? With support, it is possible to unravel the incomplete or undigested emotional traumas of the past that trigger explosive emotional responses. When we can bring awareness to what is really going on inside, we can begin to heal.
8) Reorient yourself to your Divinity. Connect with a Higher Power through Prayer. Historically, folks have managed to bear the unbearable by engaging in prayer and seeking Divine intervention. Prayer lifts us into a higher vibration so we can access wisdom and courage. We also need to recognize that we are the sons and daughters, and hands and feet of God, not simply waiting for everything to be handled for us. In this co-creative relationship, we are active participants while listening closely to inner guidance. Unburdening your heart through affirmative prayer is a useful step.
9) MEDITATE. MEDITATE. MEDITATE. Practicing meditation and mindfulness is a key disrupter of stress pathways. Ruth King, author of Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out," writes:
"Racism is a heart disease. How we think and respond is at the core of racial suffering and racial healing... The best tool I know to transform our relationship to racial suffering is mindfulness meditation... It is not a religious code as much as it is a social psychology that supports experiences of wellbeing."
Meditation and mindfulness make it possible to be more present and supported while accomplishing Steps 1-8. If you are continuing to think about problems and painful situations and find yourself in "fight or flight mode," the stress is still affecting your telomeres. Meditation and mindfulness are a balm for chronic stress.
Blackburn and colleagues have undertaken additional study of the impact of meditation on slowing the rate of cellular aging. They recognize: For those who meditate and practice mindfulness, "...The appraisal of negative situations shifts from threat to challenge. Continuous repetitive thoughts and stress arousal are reduced. Meditation and mindfulness also increase positive states of mind and hormonal factors that promote telomere maintenance."
Think about what the African ancestors endured and its impact on the genetic and hormonal ways black bodies show up in the world. We owe it to the ancestors to be the generations who disrupt the pattern of poor health and premature death.
Practicing radical self-care is an act of self-empowerment and collective resistance. It has the power to break the cycle of victimhood, illness and premature death. Let’s meditate and take deep breaths together. Doing so can change the lives and health outcomes for us, our children, their children, their children’s children for at least seven generations to come. Let's make this our life-affirming response to racism.
Photo 2: Fancy Tapis on Shutterstock
Photo 3: Body Organ Clock Chinese Medicine