“I define joy as a sustained sense of well-being and internal peace – a connection to what matters.” – Oprah Winfrey
"Once we recognize what it is we are feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, love deeply, can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy.” – Audre Lorde
The experience of stress, sadness, worry, and pain is an inevitable part of life; however, as African American women, we may experience a unique set of stressors that may have us ‘feeling blue’ at increased frequency. The combination of racial discrimination, both perceived and experienced, sexism, environmental stressors in our neighborhoods and workplaces, for example, can serve as examples of stressors that are unique to African American women. These stressors, in conjunction with other daily hassles and personal struggles, can contribute to feelings of sadness that can hinder our daily functioning and efficiency.
Like anyone else, I am no stranger to these feelings. Just as feelings of happiness, anger, confusion, or serenity serve as expressions of my emotional being, so does sadness, fear, or grief. As an African American woman who has lived and interacted with communities where a majority of the people did not mirror my own image, I have been conscious of my race, experienced racial discrimination, and have struggled with being confident with my racial identity. As a woman living in a patriarchal society, I have experienced sexism, sexual harassment, and doubted my capabilities simply because I am a woman. These experiences have, at times, compromised my happiness. However, as time has progressed and I have matured and become more confident in who I am, many strategies have helped me cope with feelings of sadness and stress.
While we may not necessarily be able to control our immediate emotional reactions to the stressors, the good news is that we can control how we respond to these feelings, ultimately contributing to better overall well being. As stated by renowned American philosopher and psychologist William James, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought (or action) over another.” Here are a few things you can try if you’re feeling stressed or have a case of the ‘blues’:
Go outside and soak up some sunshine - Studies have found a relationship between increased sun exposure and better mood due to increased levels of Vitamin D. Don’t live in a sunny area? Studies have also found that even sitting in well lit room can help improve mood.
Do yoga or stretch - Not only does yoga improve muscular strength and flexibility it also reduces stress, anxiety, and sadness by reducing the release of hormones associated with stress.
Exercise - Engaging in physical activity such as a brisk walk, run, or recreational sports helps improve mood by (1) releasing dopamine, a chemical in your brain that plays a role in happiness (2) increasing your energy and (3) helping you sleep better! Exercising 4 - 5 times a week has helped me regulate my mood and increase my confidence.
Listen to upbeat music - Several studies indicate that the type of music you listen to can either reinforce or transform your mood. Listening to upbeat music can help alleviate a negative mood and have a calming effect. Whenever I’m in a negative mood, I avoid slow, sad songs to ensure I’m not making myself feel worse.
Reach out to a friend - While the natural tendency when stressed or upset is to isolate yourself, doing so can often worsen your negative feelings! Feeling connected to others and having positive social ties can actually protect your health and well-being.
Start a gratitude journal - Taking the time to write down 5 or more things that you are grateful for will allow you to shift your perspective and focus to the positive aspects of your life. I once did this for 3 days and found that I felt more calm and happy even in the most stressful situations!
Make sure you get enough sleep - Not sleeping enough makes you react poorly in stressful situations, more irritable, and leads to decreased levels of optimism. I’ve often found that the weeks I feel happiest is when I’ve been able to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep!
Meditate - This can encompass taking time to pray if you are religious or even engaging in mindfulness practices. Meditation allows you to take a break from the stress of life and focus on your inner well being, ultimately improving your mood.
Play with your pets - If you have a furry friend, they can help you improve your mood! Studies have shown that 15 minutes of petting releases feel - good hormones such as serotonin and oxytocin, leading to a calming effect that reduces stress.
Laugh - Watch your favorite comedy show, scour YouTube for funny videos, read some jokes, or hang out with your humorous friend because laughter has been shown to be an effective coping mechanism when dealing with stress that can make you happier and feel more connected to others.
The next time you’re faced with a stressful situation or are consumed with negative feelings, be sure to try out some of these tips! Incorporating these actions in the face of stress has greatly enhanced my well-being and how I respond to negative situations, allowing me to live a happier, more healthy life.
It is important to note, however, that while experiencing stress and sadness are natural parts of life, chronic feelings of sadness and disillusionment that extend for two weeks or more, may mean that you are suffering from depression. Signs that you are depressed include feelings of sadness and loss of pleasure in things once found pleasurable, difficulty concentrating, making decisions, remembering details, loss of energy, feelings of guilt, worthlessness or hopelessness, irritability, overeating or loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping or insomnia or persistent aches or pains. If symptoms such as these persist or if your attempts to reduce stress are ineffective, it may be necessary to seek professional help.
About Udodiri Okwandu
Hello! My name is Udodiri and I am currently a senior at Harvard University where I study History and Science (with a focus in Brain Disorders and Psychopathology) and minor in Global Health & Health Policy. I’m the 5th out of seven daughters of Nigerian immigrants and originally hail from Los Angeles, California. I am truly passionate about increasing access to health care, alleviating health care disparities, and ensuring that public health initiatives take a holistic approach that serve to address the unique needs of each community. My most transformative public health experience thus far was when I had the opportunity to participate in HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis research and work with community health workers in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa last summer. I am so excited to be serving as a CC interning and working to enhance the health experiences of women of color in the greater Boston area.