Civil Unrest, Stress, and the Body

We are witnessing and participating in one of the largest civil rights movements in United States history. We are feeling stressed. And on top of enduring this country’s re-re-re-re-re-reckoning with it’s treatment of Black people, there’s COVID-19, governmental politics, climate change, civil rights injustices in other parts of the world, late stage capitalism, and so many other challenges that come with living in this country. As Black people, even in the best of times, we experience more stress than most other Americans. 

The adage “you can’t serve from an empty vessel” is often stated in activist circles. In order to fill your cup and be able to serve and fight for what we know is right, we cannot allow ourselves to fall apart. So, I want to share some information on how prolonged periods of stress can affect the body. I hope this information will guide you in maintaining your physical and mental health as you work for justice over the next days, weeks, months, years, and decades. This is a life-long fight for a more equitable world, meaning we must work continuously to fill our vessels.

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Here’s how the brain and body respond to stress: The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze responses we have when we feel stressed. When our brains process external stimuli and determine that we are not safe, the sympathetic nervous system sends our body into a state that shuts down unnecessary bodily processes. This can cause our bodies to breathe from the chest, increase heart rate, shut down the digestive system, and increase blood sugar. These physical responses are a call to action from the sympathetic nervous system. And this call to action is a proper response to short term threats, but prolonged periods in this state can be harmful to our bodies.

Here are some ways (but not all) that being in that state of stress for a prolonged period can affect our bodies:

  • Headaches

  • Clenched jaw

  • Chest pain

  • Stomach ache and other digestive problems

  • Lack of appetite or increased appetite

  • Fatigue

  • Insomnia

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Muscle soreness

  • Frequent common cold symptoms like coughing, sniffling, and slight fever

It can be difficult to care for your body during prolonged periods of stress, but there are small ways to help mitigate the effects of stress without adding yet another obligation to your plate. If you find that stress is presenting itself in any of the ways I mentioned aboveor if you’re just looking to take better care of yourselfplease consider the following tips: 

  1. Hydrate! Water is our friend. The benefits of being properly hydrated are almost endless. Sure, no one can agree how much water we should drink every day. That’s because it’s different for everyone. In my opinion, counting cups of water isn’t what matters (unless that works for you). What matters is simply grabbing a glass of water when you feel thirstyinstead of ignoring that feeling.

  2. Eat regularly. Try to make sure meals are not more than eight hours apart, that way you’ll eat at least twice a day. The sympathetic nervous system can affect digestive processes and energy levels, so it’s important to eat regularly to help combat erratic changes in our energy levels. If you want to take it a step further, take a closer look at nutrition, and make an effort to eat a variety of foods, with fresh things and protein at every meal. 

  3. Move your body however you feel you’re able. Movement can be as simple as deep breathing and minor stretching. It helps to produce endorphins that can help reduce physical pain and can create a mental feeling of well-being. Here are some tension tamers I’ve put together; a list of 10 small movements you can do to relieve stress (with gifs of me showing you how to do them). 

  4. Take time away from Social Media. Overexposure to triggering content and other stressful external stimuli and be counterproductive to reducing stress.

  5. Make time for joy. Each day, do one thing that brings you joy. It doesn’t have to be extravagant. Something small goes a long way.

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Maay B. L. M. is a Breathe For Change Wellness Champion Candidate, yoga-instructor-in-training, and child care and development expert. She is also the Imanigold Mind-Body Specialist. You can follow Maay on Instagram at @maaylemon_.

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