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by Angela Neal-Barnett, PhD

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in the United States. Data show that for Black women, anxiety is more chronic and the symptoms more intense than their White counterparts. This description, however, only tells half the story. What it does not tell us is how anxiety is perceived and experienced daily by Black women. 

Images of Black Women 

To fully understand anxiety and Black women, we must understand how Black women are viewed in this country. Research and history tell us that three basic images exist-the Strong Black Woman, the Angry Black Woman, and the Jezebel/Video Vixen. These images affect how other people see Black women and how they see themselves. They also play a role in the development and maintenance of anxiety. 

Strong Black Women are legendary. Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and every Black grandmother is renowned for her persistence and perseverance. There are many positive aspects about being a Strong Black Woman, but there are negatives as well. A Strong Black Woman “keeps on keeping on “even when she knows she should stop, placing her mental and physical health at risk. 

An Angry Black Woman will “cuss” you out before hearing you out. Tyler Perry’s Madea is a classic example of the Angry Black Woman. Our work with these women has found that many of them are anxious. The anger is an outward expression of their discomfort with negative affect associated with anxiety. 

The Jezebel/Video Vixen represents the sexualized Black woman. The term Jezebel comes from the Biblical Queen who turned her husband against God. Since slavery, Black women have been sexualized in derogatory ways, often represented in rap and hip-hop videos. Black women, particularly professional Black women work hard to dispel the Jezebel/Video Vixen image. 

Social Anxiety 

In workplaces, college and professional school settings around the country, Black women often find themselves the only one or the first one. In these situations, they have been taught that they have to be twice as good to go half as far, that they are representing the race and that they are being watched more closely than their white counterparts; beliefs that  are not necessarily inaccurate. These beliefs coupled with the Strong Black Woman image increase risk for social anxiety. 


Another social anxiety risk factor in the workplace and college/graduate/professional school setting is the acting white accusation. As the images attest, far too often we forget that there are more than three (3) ways to be a Black woman in this country. The acting White accusation, has nothing to do with wanting to be White and everything to do with what it means to be Black. In other words, it is an attack on one’s racial identity which in turn, can create anxiety. 

PTSD

The rate of sexual assault among Black women is 3.5 times higher than that of any other group in this country. Black women are also less likely to report their assault. Many suffer in silence for years, never sharing with anyone what has happened to them. Thus, the trauma remains unnamed, unknown and untreated and the symptoms worsen. 

Racism is a form of trauma that disproportionality affects Black women (and men). Trauma in the form of racism can be directly or indirectly experienced. Driving while Black, shopping while Black, and everyday racial micoraggressions are direct examples of racial trauma. The most common indirect examples are the viral videos of unarmed Black women and men being killed. Vicariously witnessing race-based trauma, can be as devastating as the direct form. 

Help Seeking 

Slowly, the stigma associated with seeking help for anxiety is disappearing. Women have begun to understand that an anxious Black woman is not crazy, she is simply anxious and with assistance can reclaim her life. Black women who seek help want a therapist who understands their issues. Imagine telling you someone you are tired of being a strong Black woman and they recommend you stop working out. It’s happened! Therefore, it is important that therapists enhance their cultural competence and be open to culturally adapting anxiety interventions. Cultural competence involves, but is not limited to, familiarity with stereotypical images of Black women, racism as trauma and the acting white accusation. Cultural adaptation can include assessment and discussion of racial trauma and the deconstruction of images of Black women. 

Another form of cultural adaptation involves how an intervention is delivered. In our program, we use sister circles, an indigenous form of healing. Within the circles, we adapt CBT for a Black female populations. As example, rather than use cognitive restructuring to replace erroneous thoughts, we teach musical cognitive restructuring. Research has found both the method and content to be feasible and effective. 

This blog post was written April, 2018.


About the Author

Angela Neal-Barnett.jpgDr. Angela Neal-Barnett is a professor of Psychological Sciences and director of the Program for Research on Anxiety Disorders among African Americans at Kent State University. She is the author of Soothe Your Nerves: The Black Women’s Guide to Understanding and Overcoming Anxiety, Panic, and Fear (Simon & Schuster). Dr. Neal-Barnett is the recipient of numerous grants and has authored numerous journal and  general public articles on Black females and anxiety. Dr. Neal-Barnett is a member of ADAA's Multicultural Advances SIG and the Women's SIG

I have been looking for some tips on how to cope as a black woman living during these times and sadly reading your words resonated so much with me. We shouldn’t have to be compared to any other female to determine our worth. I ask myself all the time, why were we chosen to be the minority and this psychological abuse allowed to go on for centuries, if we are all “god’s” children and were supposedly created equal?....

Its good to know there are people out there taking steps to research and find solutions for black women's everyday nightmare of having depression and anxiety and really any form of mental illness.

What I would like to talk about is the pure hell on earth I've experienced the past 12 months as a single black mother living in an all hispanic city from rejecting a black man who is already MARRIED!!!

As soon I saw he was married I immediately took all steps to avoid any of his advances in the best way I knew. This demon managed to break into my home while I wasnt there (Him and his WIFE stayed in the apt above me) put hidden cameras in EVERY SINGLE VENT of my apt, STOLE all my personal info (name, phone numbers, etc) and has now managed to hack my electronic devices in my home.

He calls my landline and cell phone on a consistent basis and I ignore and block right away. He is using some type of phone app where you can call someone from multiple #s and everytime I ignore and block he RETALIATES by making as much aggressive noise as he can manufacture. Mind you, I work from home so this not only affects me but it affects my job and my ability to do my job. He has harrased all of my social medias (that he stole from the break in) and I deleted the accounts and created new ones (troll accounts to make it harder to find me) He found the accounts within 3 days! I also changed all of my phone #s in which the harrasing calls started back in 5 days!!! This is when i realized my devices must be hacked.

I closed all my vents to my home but somehow he still knows every single room I am in. I don't feel safe at all feel constantly watcher and whats even more frightening is that I fear for the safety of my teenage daughter. I wish there was someone that could help me but I have nobody to call and even if I did I don't feel safe talking in this apt anymore because I feel like its buged. I don't go outside anymore, can't sleep because of the noise, no peace on the job due to lack of sleep, constantly on edge and I have homicidal thoughts of killing him in the worst way.

My question is, why is it that society is constantly telling black single mothers to "choose better" when it comes to men but not realizing that choosing better means rejecting any man who cannot provide the quality of life we desire for ourselves and our children and black men simply don't take rejection well? What are we supposed to do when we face rejection retalition from these men? We're already at the bottom in society (black single mothers) and have little to NO resources, how do we protect ourselves aside from the obvious steps I've already taken? Keep in mind this bullying, stalking and harrassing is coming from a MARRIED MAN who is mad that I love myself and my child enough to know that dealing w/a married man in any way will not benefit us AND can be very deadly!

Broken trust to my broken life has left me hopeless. Your article is good, but the hope of having a great "sister circle" is just not feasable nor is it realistic when the participant's is so hurt and does not understand the purpose of connectedness. You have addressed many stereotypes, labels and semi great possible great ideas, but it still does not truly help the destitute, damaged and those of us who stand out as lost.

I lost hope and I gave up. PTSD, Anxiety and Depression have been in my diagnoses for years. And, my combat is life itself not on the battlefield of war.

I have no life left and I am not even 50 years old.

Again, Thank you for the article...it can be cited it a master's degree paper.

I've heard all my life about how, "strong the black woman is," and how I had to be one. Everywhere you turn- this is the most commonly misused stereotype that is placed upon us by the world and even by majority of black men.
But what does being a "strong black woman mean?" I personally believe its a way for society to turn a deaf ear to the violence, lack of protection, and unbearable hardships as black women we have had to endure without any help or empathy. As to say,"don't worry, she is a black woman she is strong. Her feelings and body are as tough as iron!" Yet we are women too!

Anger? When the human brain is pressed beyond the capacity to bear the mental weight- anyone can be driven to lash out in agony. Yet as black women we are most likely called angry.. But when white women voice their displeasure in anyway, they get all the comfort and treatment. One reason why is because their men (white men) have been taught to protect them on a broader scale, (and this is not to say that this pertains to all white men and women) white women are labeled as gentle,helpless etc. etc.
As black women what can we do to convince our men that we too need protection, to see our value, to stop taking out their frustrations on us and to stop degrading,disrespecting,sexually objectifying, and raping us.
See, the black woman has never considered herself a lady because she has been taught that she was some kind of work mule, only for mass production of broods of children- and strong labor but never good enough to wear a beautiful dress(gown), speak with poise, and hold her head high with elegance.
But in 2020 its time as black women we change that concept- its time for us to redefine who we are and what our needs are. Lastly, no one will give us validation- for we must learn to honor ourselves. As a whole we must change they way we carry ourselves, we must change our tone, and we have to stop looking towards the media for our image of beauty. Look at your own beautiful reflection in the mirror for assurance :)
As black women we must find our beauty from within and reconstruct how we view ourselves and the rest will follow.

I may be tardy to the discussion but 2020 has made such an article so inevitable. I found this erase some of the Nasty perceptions that are evident in our culture. We tend to use tasteless words when we lack the proper words and I hope that many see this article and grasp the understanding of why verse slapping a distasteful label over it and checking yet another box. Thank you, for a great article.

Thank you for this article, I had to admit some hard truths about mental health recently. I've had some tremendous victories but still have areas where I could benefit from some help. I'm browsing the web for encouraging articles in general and articles that speak a bit to my cultural background as well. Thanks.

People don't talk enough about the racialized beauty standards that black women are held to. Just being black automatically demotes your beauty as a woman in the eyes of most people in society. The very thing that makes black women less of a woman in the eyes of society makes black men seen as more manly and therefore attractive. This realization is traumatic in itself.

And of course, if you're an exceptionally beautiful black woman you don't have to deal with this. Exceptionally beautiful people in general have a different experience to the average or only somewhat above average among us. But someone like me? I have to psyche myself out every day that I walk out of the house because I made the mistake of being born with dark skin, broad facial features, and female. That is only one thing about being a black woman that causes me chronic depression. Another thing is that black males find this fact amusing and they constantly throw it in the faces of black women that look like me.

I remember during the '90s when anorexia and bulimia were a huge deal in the white community and a lot of young white women and girls were suffering from it due to them comparing themselves to thin models and actresses. The white community totally mobilized themselves to repair the self-esteem of white women and girls during that time. But there's no push to do the same for black women and girls. And I guess that's something else that's sad.

Can we talk about how black men are made to be highly visible in American media? While young, talented, fresh-faced unambiguously black women are not given work? How it's so rare to see one that when you do you take immediate notice. Is it a coincidence that almost all black female entertainers of today are mixed race, while most black male entertainers are actually black? Oh yeah, I forgot, when we're talking about the way that black women are being disenfranchised its reverse colorism, and being divisive. These are things that the black community would never let black males endure. Their innate manhood and beauty being put into question. Black women are the main ones constantly validating them as they humiliate us.

Anyway, I'm done ranting. And it was pretty pointless trying to express these things to therapists. You just get constantly gaslit.

I don't Beleave it's true Because it's more likely it's the White's who have to Suffer we are the one's get Attacked with Racial Discrimination from the Black's they Blame the Wrong White people for thing's that never happen to them in stead of Blaming it on the one who Did wrong so we White's have to suffer more Abuse from them

charmaine Riley

November 22, 2020

This year Black Lives Matter makes headlines as the black community demands social equality and justice. Thanks for educating us about anxiety because the community doesn't talk enough.

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