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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. 


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

Sorry but no as a combat veteran I cannot imagine these ladies have any idea what PTSD is really like. Shopping while black and driving while black really? I think there are very good points in this article but please do not talk about shopping while black and PTSD.

I read your comment before reading the paragraph. You missed the entire point. In fact, it was laid out quite well and you took it apart and misunderstood another person’s experience. When you take out your personal experience, you’ll learn and understand that PTSD comes from anything that is traumatic to the human mind and body. The key is it changes your brain and your behavior in addition to whatever else that goes on in your life. A reminder that no two lives are the same. A veteran’s everyday experience with PTSD will not be the same as a a black individual who has experienced racial trauma and has PTSD from it. You truly don’t know what goes on in ones head and it is not a competition.

Lakeasha

June 16, 2020

In reply to by blondie fesser

I am a 38 year old black woman and I have dealt with ptsd for years with little help due to the cost of treatment. I can’t afford to se someone. My trauma goes back into my childhood with sexual abuse physical abuse foster homes adoption and the list goes on. I may not have served in the military but I know very well what it’s like to suffer in silence with this issue

Grateful@1

June 20, 2020

In reply to by blondie fesser

You're misled and confused. Driving while black, shopping while black and being black are very real issues -which create trauma and can result in PSTD. I believe you're responding without information.

I saw a video of a 7 or 8 year old black girl crying hysterically with her hands in the air as a police officer drove past her, because she thought she might lose her life. You don’t think experiences like that over the span of 20 years or so will lead to PTSD?

Theresa

July 2, 2020

In reply to by blondie fesser

Karen you will never understand any of the issues we face because you are not us. You know how much I’ve seen in my life that is far worse then shit military soldiers have seen. I wouldn’t expect you too.

Anonymous

July 3, 2020

In reply to by blondie fesser

PTSD is not just a military issue. And everything she said, I believe I valid. A person can develop ptsd after seeing all the traumatizing things going on in the world. I too am a combat veteran, Marine Corps.

Nina

July 13, 2020

In reply to by blondie fesser

Are you a Black woman? Because there are different ways to get PTSD, and while it may not be compared to going into combat. Black people, specifically women, definitely suffer from PTSD from being victims of systemic racism. It's not only about shopping, that is an example of challenges that we go through. It's only a small part of a much larger picture that does cause PTSD.

Trauma Doc

July 20, 2020

In reply to by blondie fesser

Dear Blondie—I’m a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma. I’ve treated several combat veterans, MST survivors, and many victims of racial trauma. Trauma is trauma. I recommend you read the book The Body Keeps Score.

In the final paragraph, the author writes, "In our program, we use sister circles, an indigenous form of healing." Is there a link available to the program referenced? Are there additional resources and/or readings available regarding how, specifically, the program referenced--or the author herself--finds, establishes, or supports these sister circles to engender healing in multiple locales?

Thank you for any assistance you're able to provide.

Provide the source to the data that shows black women have more chronic anxiety and more intense symptoms then their white counterparts.

Why wouldn’t black women have more chronic anxiety and intense symptoms than white women? Do white women have to deal with anti-black racism AND sexism at the exact same time? What is your problem? And stop demanding information that any kindergartener could look up on google. Why don’t you google information on black women and anxiety so you won’t have to “ask” inane questions about why black women would be more anxious than white women in a racist country.

This article hit the nail right on the head. These are things that even myself go through daily. Black women can't even wear their GOD given hair without stares from all other people. So we have to try and fit into other peoples image instead of GODS image.

thank you having a place to share my story a former military spouse low income not able to work an apartment not in good condition I was homeless for several years in tampa fl I am in treatment now its going well now

I like how this article pointed out three different general directions that are choices for black woman. I also like how the state of being of a black woman was discussed and organized. There is a sense of understanding and compassion that seeps through in different scenarios that a black woman could find herself. It would be nice to view additional options for solutions with an equal amount of exploration.

So many women can benefit from these therapies. I hope to see an expansion soon. Often we hear of the 'superman' syndrome; however many rarely comment on the 'superwoman' expectation in Black women; often connected to the Strong Black women, partly because we get less credibility for the work that we do.

I have some comments here within several articles on AfricanAmerican women that I have written.

Link:
independent.academia.edu/AlishaGray

Perhaps they will helpful in your therapy sessions as well.

Mrs. Carolyn Clavon

October 5, 2019

I really appreciate and respect your article. It is an honor to congratulate you on all of your life achievements. When there is a time convenient for you, would you be able to help the black community understand why black women steer more into the direction of tearing each other down vs the path of equality, respect, encouragement, wisdom, compassion and spirituality?

Thank you so much for this. I would carry this article with me anytime I was going into therapy, having a bad day at work, and in routine checkups too. Therapy was horrible experience after horrible experience. Being misunderstood. Touted as 'strong and brave' but treated as mentally ill/crazy because I 'intimidated' the medical professional from my look or my backstory alone. I was often told that I seemed intimidating and I haven't even spoke. This is on the first visit. I wish they just would have say then that they can't handle me and my struggles, instead of refusing to stop mishandling me altogether.

Since I didn't show the typical sign of depression or anxiety, I should have quit while I was ahead. It would have saved me so much money on unnecessary meds and counter side effect meds, ineffective thus harmful therapy, and inpatient hospitalizations, because none of the other things were working. The time and effort trying to lose all the weight and rebuilding my professional from such a trial and error process. I'm still reeling from it and I am only in my 30s. I can see why we hold it in, It's like the don't even try and because of that we get hurt. Really bad. Too much medicine so we can 'calm down' or complete dismissal of any pain we have. Seeking professional help? Damned if you do, damned if don't. ...so why even bother? But, I am hopeful since articles like this are more prevalent and more POCs are in members of the medical community. It's motivated me to in psychology in someway. I can't imagine letting this kind of substandard care happen to anyone else that is so deserving of relief and compassion instead. Thank you again!

Thanks so much. It's so appreciated that someone understands, this article really helped me to calm down and experience the love and peace that I asked the universe to send me today. I see articles like this as an act of love because some of us really are out here hurting and living in so much fear at times while also feeling isolated. I live in a black where the black population is less than one percent and it's here where I've learned so much more about racism and it's origins. It's empowering to know that we can experience such things and still thrive. I will say I have experienced a lot of what I've read in the comments here, especially the re traumatizing therapy and medication stories. This morning I was doing some meditation and visualization excercises and I was imagining being in a circle of black women swaying and healing using our vocals to release the pain and trauma and show support, so I know it's not a coincidence o came across this. A lot of us crave that kind of interaction with other black woman and I believe we have a subtle remembrance of those customs. I'm really glad the circle exist, and as a black woman who has been primarily self managing her mental health since childhood I super appreciate you for writing this and I wish you and ever woman on here infinite love and blessings.

Thank you for the article. As a multicultural woman, I was recently diagnosed with depression and anxiety(social anxiety). At the request of my mother, I am seeing a life therapist whom referred me to start seeing a psychologist.

What a relief to know that what I experience almost daily is actually a thing— it exists! Anxiousness. Social Anxiety due to racism and cultural stereotypes. I’m 24 and I've pretty much been dealing with this all of my child, teenage life and early adult life. I don’t deal with crowds anymore. I don’t deal with PEOPLE anymore because they can be quite mean. — And yes, racism and cultural stereotypes are a big part of that. I’ve found writing and art to be a good outlet when I’m feeling the worst of my anxiety and won’t go out of the house for days to weeks. I know this isn’t healthy but I do tend to feel better after I write my stories or craft something during my social hiatus. I don’t have a job because it is quite difficult to find one especially for our generation. I know this isn’t mentioned in the article but it’s also harder for us (especially BW) to find stable jobs. You pretty much have to look a certain way or know someone simply to get a stable, decent job now. Just having a college degree doesn’t seem to cut it anymore.

I’m a 23 year old black woman dealing with social anxiety and also felt a ton of relief reading this article. It makes me feel like my feelings are valid and that I’m not alone. I’ve struggled with social anxiety since I was about 13 but having recently graduated college and entering the workforce have struggled even more-so with isolation and loneliness which ultimately has lead to self-destructive coping mechanisms. I’ve tried therapy in the past but didn’t feel understood and am desperate to find healthy coping mechanisms. Finding articles like this one help me get through the bad days.

Thank you so much for writing this article. It really means a lot to me to have someone that I don't know understand my situation. I've been a trailblazer as far as paving the way for other Africa American's but unfortunately it comes at a very high price that I realize now I couldn't afford (PTSD). Nothing major but steps taken to help our people by representing myself well and being a stern speaker. Now, I'm just tired with bad memories residing in my head unable to see any accomplishments just sacrifices. Thank you.

Cry me a river. PTSD? Did you have your friends blood spattered all over you in combat? Thank you for trying to make a difference. But please don't tell me you suffer from PTSD because of your bad memories.

Trauma is trauma no matter what name it is given. Every experience is different that's why we all need to come together and share. It's having to deal with those bad memories over and over again no matter where, why, how or who it comes from.
There is a trauma, an ongoing trauma, that we have to go through even in today's world because there are people in our society that don't want us to have a LIFE just because of our skin colour. If racial discrimination didn't occur, then there wouldn't be young people dealing with such trauma now. There aren't systems in place protecting us from experiencing trauma based on how dark our skin is. People need to start talking about how everyone can make situations better when they see someone being treated unfairly in society. It's nice when someone sticks up and empathises with us when we least expect it and to not have to defend ourselves all of the time.

Good day,
I am a 57-year-old black woman and I have lost my way and I do not know how to find my way. I put on the everything is alright mask but its not... And now with all of the things that are going on in the United States, I find myself trying to shrink and be invisible. How do I find my way

You're not alone. Regrouping is a matter of addressing the issues, seek faith-based and clinical treatment( both are extremely beneficial). According to scientific research, cognitive therapy can help in getting you unstuck. It's tangible and very playable. Psycho-therapy is another great help-seeking treatment that has significant advantages for mental wellness.

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.

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