Margaret Moore's picture Submitted by Margaret Moore January 17, 2023 - 7:11pm


In our recent New Year’s Java with Jimmy podcast, sponsored by the Massachusetts General Hospital Office of Equity and Community Health, Jimmy and I explored the shifts that Black people have been experiencing each year in their relationship to the experience of racism since George Floyd was killed. Jimmy mentioned “good grief” as a helpful frame for the current experience of many, which includes gradual acceptance as a step toward healing and post-traumatic growth. 

Jimmy reflected that he sometimes doesn’t exercise, eat, or sleep well enough to counter his stress. And that it’s important to lean in to improve well-being when your life brings chronic stress simply related to you being you - your race, gender, education, culture, status, age, or appearance, all the things that trigger human bias.

The stresses of bias reported by scientific experts are many:

  • Being continually slighted and not treated respectfully.
  • Being quickly judged and categorized.
  • Lacking a sense of belonging and inclusion, reducing self-esteem and connection.
  • Fearing discrimination, which leads to stress, anxiety and self-consciousness. 
  • Impairing cognitive processing and performance, reducing competence and confidence. 
  • Causing inflammation and chronic disease – both physical and mental illness - increasing suffering and shortening lifespans.
  • Internalizing biases so they become self-fulfilling, limiting self-determination (reaching one's full potential).


Chronic stress drives chronic diseases

Last November, I was moved by the perspective of the 20th Surgeon General, Black physician and anesthesiologist Jerome Adams, on stage at the American College of Lifestyle Medicine conference. Dr. Adams explained that research studies confirm that the chronic stress of racism harms the health of Black people. The high levels of stress are a key driver of more disease and earlier death. One example: Black women with PhD degrees have more problematic pregnancies than White women with no degrees. Another example: with similar backgrounds and education, rates of heart disease in Black male physicians are higher than White male physicians.

This reminds me of Steve Cole’s work at UCLA as a psychologist who became a molecular biologist. He identified three harmful changes in gene expression of the immune system caused by chronic stress (which are also caused by depression, loneliness, and poor sleep). Over time these changes accelerate our path to chronic diseases, making you vulnerable to whatever disease process happens to be in your genetic heritage.

Pour the waters of well-being on the fires of chronic stress

Whether you are dealing with the unrelenting chronic stress of racism and bias, or any other difficult or worrying circumstances at home or work, the message is the same. Investing in your well-being daily is essential to countering your stress, giving you the mental and physical resources to reduce the harmful impact of stress.

Chronic stress causes slow-burning inflammation that keeps on burning unless you pour the waters of well-being over the fires of stress.

All the well-being options, enjoying social connection, finding your groove at work or in hobbies, feeling gratitude, having a good laugh, eating health-giving foods and drinks, and moving your body with some vigor, are all positive counterforces that enable stress to strengthen not weaken you.


The destiny of stress is strength

In our podcast, I went on to quote the ancient Greek Stoic philosophers who taught that the “obstacle is the way,” meaning that the way forward is walking toward the stress and turning it into strength and wisdom. The destiny of stress isn’t management, the destiny of stress is transformation. The best leaders like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela transformed their chronic stress into wisdom and grace.

Psychologists call this process integration. Psychiatrist Dan Siegel teaches that integration is at the core of our well-being. We integrate our challenges and obstacles into learning and growth. The tension of stress, what is unresolved, is resolved by turning into insight and realization. The brain enables integration, resolving the unresolved, during sleep. That is why you wake up the next day, next week, or next year, feeling at least a little more peace with what caused anger, worry, or sadness before. The healthier you are, the more resources you have, the faster you can resolve the unresolved.

This natural process of integration over decades may at least partly explain why older people have more calm and equanimity and are less activated by difficult experiences. When you can integrate your stress into something good, you have more resources for coming alive, focusing deeply, and engaging in activities that give you life, on a football field, in an office, or in your backyard.

Jimmy raised the notion that one way to overcome antiracism is resistance, standing up and marching against the status quo, arguing against the way things are. However there is another path - the integration path, integrating the anger and frustration into grace and influence. Like Martin Luther King or Mandela, you calm and integrate the rebel inside to become your higher self, a strong leader, calmly leading and guiding others to a better place of more respect and support, and less bias.


Steps to integration, how to turn stress into strength

Step One - name the unresolved – what are you feeling, what words best describe it?

Step Two – open your palms upward and feel acceptance – it is what it is. Not approving or condoning bad behavior, just accepting what you can’t change.

Step Three – cross your hands over your heart, feel compassion for your experience, your stress.

Step Four – get curious. What does this stress tell you about what’s important to you, what you value? What good might emerge from this stress, where might it lead you? As Thich Nhat Hanh advised, suffer well, use suffering well to learn and grow.

Step Five – quick integration – check out my Declipse technique to resolve the unresolved in a few moments.

Being well is the sexiest flex

The morning of our podcast, in response to football player Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest, Jimmy posted on social media:

"We Black men need to make our health and wellness a priority – that is the sexiest Flex.”

Jimmy is right - you glow inside and out when you flex your well-being and turn your stress into strength.

That's a new kind of cool.