Managing Anxiety & Sleeplessness during a Pandemic

Photo of African American woman dressed in gray tank and tan pants, seated on a kingsized white bed with a dark brown wall-mounted wooden headboard.

Image courtesy of CreateHerStock. Copyright 2019 Neosha Gardner

I don’t feel anxious when I’m anxious, not in the classic sense. But I have a pretty strong pretty disposition to anxiety. We could argue about whether it’s biological or a result of conditioning, but it’s definitely a pattern in my family.

Even as a clinical psychologist, it took me a long time to identify my anxiety for what it was. Because I don’t feel anxious when I’m anxious. I don’t have the telltale symptoms of uncontrollable worry, nervousness, difficulty concentrating, persistent feelings of fear or dread. Those are the classic cognitive and emotional symptoms of anxiety. I rarely, if ever, have those.

It’s part of the legacy of being a StrongBlackWoman, that cultural myth that so many Black women – in the Americas, in Europe, in Africa, and in the Caribbean – strive to live up to. In Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, I describe the StrongBlackWoman as a “scripted role into which Black women are socialized, usually beginning in childhood. Rather than being a genuine expression of personality, it is a mask that stifles authenticity.” The StrongBlackWoman takes who we really are and hides it behind a mask of emotional stoicism, self-sacrificial caregiving, and extreme independence. In other words, the StrongBlackWoman is the woman who constantly extends herself on behalf of others, always striving to identify and take care of the needs of her family, her friends, her church, and her workplace. It is not that she doesn’t feel the burden of constant multitasking and overcommitment. It’s that she has learned to repress it, to not feel it. She has learned to push through, to keep going.

I have learned to repress it, to not feel it, to push through, to keep going. Like my mother and my grandmothers and all the women before me, I have learned to use strength as a mask that covers anxious thoughts and feelings. Being two generations removed from sharecropping and just a few more from slavery in the deep South makes it even easier for me to ignore, deny, and repress feelings of worry and fear. “I’m not afraid. I’m a StrongBlackWoman! I come from strong stock and I can handle anything.” Anything but fear it seems.

I have been StrongBlackWoman-in-recovery for over 15 years. In that time, I have actively worked toward releasing the myth’s hold on me, learning to be more open, more vulnerable, more…human. And still, I don’t feel anxious when I’m anxious, at least not mentally. But my body, it tells a different story. That story often comes in the form of insomnia, difficulty falling or staying asleep.

I have struggled with insomnia since childhood. Back then, going to sleep wasn’t the problem; it was staying asleep. I often woke up with nightmares, running into my mother’s room and begging to sleep with her. When I was six years old, my mother said to me, “You can’t sleep with me every night.” From that point on, I pointedly decided to only go into her room every other night. On alternate nights, I stayed in my room, staring into the darkness, often in terror. My mind played horrible tricks on me in the night, turning innocuous household objects into demons and witches who would be ready to pounce the moment that I closed my eyes.

Over the years, my battle with sleeplessness waxed and waned depending upon the stresses in my life. When it became clear that my lack of restful sleep and my chronic pain issues were feeding each other, my rheumatologist prescribed a low-dose sleep aid. Finally, after four decades, I was sleeping well on a regular basis. Eventually – and with the help of lots of complementary therapies, the care of good naturopaths and psychotherapists, and several years of strengthening healthy nutrition, exercise, meditation, and work patterns – I was able to ween off the medication. My anxiety was under control and so was my sleep.

And then came #TheRona.

Anxiety is a highly triggering emotion. Anxiety about one particular issue easily triggers any other latent anxieties, gathering small concerns into a giant rolling ball that rapidly overtakes us. In early March, as COVID-19 became the focus of nearly every conversation, every newscast, and every social media post, the sense of anxiety was palpable. I felt it then. There was no repressing the sense of disruption, the obsessive amounts of time reading news articles, watching television, and checking email to figure out what was known, what was happening, how my institution was responding, and how we needed to adapt. Still, though, I thought I was turning off those worries at night. My body told a different story.

A few nights into the shelter-in-place order, I had multiple nights of restlessness. I tossed and turned, trying to find a better sleeping position. I tried some sleeping meditations, only to find myself wide awake the moment that they ended. I tried reading until I got tired, but felt alert the minute that I put the book down and closed my eyes. My chronic pain and GI issues flared up, too.

With the help of my naturopath and psychotherapist, I realized that the anxious little girl inside me had awoken, and I needed to take care of her. That meant that I needed to structure my pandemic life in ways that would keep my stress response system under control, instead of allowing it to run rampant under the threat of constant change.

The biggest change has been the way that I spend my evenings. Since our biological stress response is designed to keep us awake and alert, I have to minimize activities that will trigger it in the hours before sleep. That means no news and very little social media after dinnertime. In fact, lately when I receive invitations for podcast interviews and webinars, I ask that they be scheduled by 4pm to ensure some distance between talking about heavy topics and going to sleep. I limit my evening entertainment to reading fiction, doing puzzles, crafting, or watching lighthearted tv shows or movies. And while quarantine offers the opportunity to stay up late at night and sleep in each morning, I’ve tried to maintain a regular sleep-wake schedule. I know firsthand the struggle of having an irregular circadian rhythm and I don’t plan on going back there.

Sleep is also impacted by overall health. It’s hard to sleep when you’re in pain or having stomach pain or an allergy flare-up. Good rest is part of an overall approach to wellness that includes eating right for my body, staying active, stretching and doing yoga, meditating, staying hydrated, taking all my medications and supplements, and following up with healthcare – all of which contribute to a healthy immune system.

Feeling anxious is an inevitable – and appropriate – part of a global health crisis. The key to managing it is not to repress it, but to take care of it.

Eating Well During Quarantine

I’m going to do something that I’ve never (at least not to my memory) done in my blogging life: recommend a product. About a month ago, I finally caved in and subscribed to a meal service. I’ll tell you a little about my process in selecting one and how it’s helped us to eat well during quarantine.

I’ve looked at multiple meal services over the past few years. Some have been appealing but I didn’t think they could accommodate my food restrictions (I’m gluten-sensitive and have lots of other foods that I can tolerate only in moderation) as well as the fact that I live with a picky middle schooler and a partner who will try almost anything but really likes meat. And all the plans seemed too expensive to order for just one person. So I always gave up on them.

I reconsidered this year because I was scheduled to go on a writing retreat. I’d be spending four weeks in an apartment on a college campus in a small town with no transportation. I needed to eat healthy but also minimize my time cooking (because the whole point of a writing retreat is to get away from normal distractions and responsibilities so that you can just write). So I decided to use the four weeks to experiment with a meal service. I looked at several. There are so many more options now for those of us on gluten-free diets. Some of the meals looked positively luxurious.

But I wanted simple. I wanted meals that I could cook – not microwave – with very little effort. And I wanted to be able to mix and match ingredients if I wanted, rather than feeling like I had to use something for a specific recipe.

I decided that HungryRoot was the best plan for me. HungryRoot operates a little more like a grocery service than a meal preparation service. When you sign up, you’re asked about your dietary preferences. Do you have any food allergies or restrictions? How many people are you feeding with each meal? Are you aiming for weight loss? How long do you want to spend cooking? How many breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks do you want the service to provide each week? (Their website is kind of crap in terms of showing people what options are available before you join. I had to do some digging and ultimately decide to sign up for an account before I really figured it out).

After you do that, HungryRoot configures your first week of groceries. With HungryRoot, you don’t get meal kits. You get groceries: a bag of shaved Brussels sprouts, some precut veggies for stir-fries or salads, preseasoned and cooked tofu, boxes of pasta, and so on. You can prepare them the way that they want or you can mix them up. You can even integrate them into food you already have at home. I opted for 10 meals per week initially (4 lunches and 6 dinners) because I was going to be in the middle of nowhere and wasn’t sure what I’d be able to access other than the campus cafeteria and maybe pizza delivery. Each meal has 2 servings, so HungryRoot gave me 5 suggestions. Their meals mainly fall into these categories: pasta (yes,plenty of gluten-free options!), bowls, stir-fries, salads, and flatbreads. Each recipe generally has a base (veggies or gluten-free grains for me), protein (my choices lean toward tofu, beans, Beyond Burgers, chicken breasts, and chicken sausage), and a sauce. They provide suggestions on additions (pantry items like Parmesan cheese, dried cranberries, etc.).

Photo of brown wooden table covered with food items, including tomato sauce, cauliflower linguine, stir-fry veggies, salad mixes, packaged tofu nuggets, chicken sausage, grilled chicken breast, Thai peanut sauce, and sesame ginger dressing.
This week’s HungryRoot order includes ingredients for two stir-fries, a pasta dish, and salad.

About a week before I – and my first HungryRoot order – were supposed to arrive at the writing center, universities started closing and it was clear that I wouldn’t be going. Since I’d already paid for the first order, I decided to have it delivered to my home and that I’d use it to try to eat healthy during quarantine. I switched up some of the recipes so that they’d be more appealing to my family. I swapped out some of the tofu for extra chicken breast or chicken sausage so that my middle schooler would eat them. I figured we would try the first week and if it didn’t work, I’d cancel the service. But it did work, pretty well in fact. We can easily cook healthy meals in about 10-20 minutes. The portions serve 2 people well, but it turned out that they could easily be stretched to serve 2 adults and a tweenager who hates veggies.If we were doing a veggie stir-fry with quinoa, we’d just add in some chicken breast and cook some rice for the kiddo.

After the first week, we downgraded our service to 3 meals per week, which prices at $69. HungryRoot works on a points-system. After the service configures our meals based on our dietary preferences and our ratings of the meals we’ve tried, I make changes. Sometimes I have points left over, which is cool because you can buy individual items, like a pack of broccolini or an extra serving of grilled chicken breast. Those items help us to stretch the meals to feed three people. Or sometimes they end up helping us make quick and healthy lunches. So generally, we end up with 3-4 meals worth of food for 3 people. We just got our fifth order. On the menu this week: pasta with chicken sausage and tomato sauce; a peanut chicken & vegetable stir-fry; a sesame ginger stir-fry with tofu; and a salad with tofu bites. That leaves us a few days each week to cook other easy meals, with items we can get from our grocery pickup and delivery services. Fajita bowls, tacos, burgers, and homemade pizza are on the regular rotation now. About once a week, we throw something on the grill.

A lot of people on social media are talking about all the junk food that they’re eating at home. But because of my health issues, I can’t afford that. Food is medicine for me.

Only recently have I gotten my GI issues under control and deviating too much will result in a flare up that could further compromise my already immunocompromised body. As a breast cancer survivor, I’m already working with fewer lymph nodes than the average body. So I’ve had to practice pretty strict social distancing: remaining home except for medical appointments and wearing a mask even when I go for a walk in my neighborhood. Quarantine means that I can’t make my weekly visits to the Dekalb Farmers Market to stock up on organic produce and meat. My body needs more nutrition than frozen and processed food can give it, but I can’t always rely on local grocery delivery (or even pickup) to have what I need in stock. I never would have guessed that the meal service that I’d planned to use for a 4-week writing retreat would be such a big help to my family as we try to manage this period of isolation, but it is.

If you’re interested in trying HungryRoot, you can use this link for $15 off your first order, which will give me an extra $15 too! My kid will be so happy about all that extra tofu!

Journey to Self-Care

SelfCare Journey email header

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.
-Audre Lorde

Do you need to get serious about self-care? Maybe you’re struggling from stress-related health problems after a lifetime of self-neglect. Or perhaps you’ve gone through a move, divorce, or some other major life transition that’s disrupted your self-care patterns. Or maybe you’ve experienced a developmental shift or illness and your old self-care patterns aren’t enough anymore.

Self-care is easier said than done. It is countercultural in a society that values productivity over profit above all else. Some of us learn to put others’ needs ahead because of lessons we learned in childhood. For some of us, it happens when we become parents or caregivers. Others of us are helping professionals or social justice activists who put self-care on the back burner because of our vocations.

Some of us have never embarked on a self-care journey, while others have tried but been knocked off-course. Either way, it’s time to get on the self-care wagon!

If you’re ready to get serious about self-care, sign up for my 2016 Journey to Self-Care series. You’ll get one email per month with inspirational messages and practical exercises for kicking off, reviving, or enhancing your self-care plan. I’m going to be practicing right along with you, so you’ll get my reflections on what works for me, what doesn’t, and what keeps me going.

Why Women of Color in Christian Social Justice Need a Retreat, and How Others Can Support

On November 14, 2015, the Christian Community Development Association will host its first (but hopefully not its last) post-conference retreat for Women of Color. A few months ago, I wrote about the need for the retreat. For 24 hours, African-, Asian-, Indigenous-, and Latina-American Christian women who are engaged in social justice, community development, and reconciliation ministry will gather together for fellowship and renewal. For some of us, it will be the first time that women of color gather across racial/ethnic lines to discuss our common needs and interests, as well as the impediments to our solidarity. woman-mixedrace

Many of us spend the vast majority of our days as racial-gender outliers. We are used to being one of few people of color in white-dominant circles, one of few women in male-dominant arenas. And we are almost always the first or only woman of color. We are the marginalized among the marginalized. We are used to walking on eggshells, filtering our words and behaviors so as not to make waves, having our opinions discounted even as people affirm how important it is for us to be present. Being a woman of color in evangelical social justice organizations is akin being a three-dimensional creature trying to live in a two-dimensional world. We’re constantly flattening ourselves. Next week, we get to take a big inhale and puff up again.

There has been some pushback. It has been outweighed, however, by the outpouring of support that we have received from White women and brothers of all races who have supported us. Several have donated scholarship funds to pay for the registration of women who want and need to be at the retreat, but who cannot afford it. Some have volunteered to handle registration and logistics to free the steering committee and women of color on the CCDA staff to attend – rather than work – the retreat. Others have spread the word about the retreat to the women in their ministries and encouraged them to attend.

We still have people asking how they can help. Below are a few suggestions.

Pray for us. Pray that the women who need to be part of this healing, safe space will get the support that they need to attend. Pray for the speakers, worship team, steering committee, and CCDA staff who will be supporting us, even as they are worn out from an already full conference schedule. Pray that the Holy Spirit will show up and do her work, that she will meet each participant where we are and give us what we need to continue.

Provide financial support. There is a waiting list of women who would like to attend but who cannot afford the registration fee ($79) or the additional hotel stay ($149). Many women of color do CCD ministry on a volunteer or part-time basis with organizations who cannot afford to pay for their attendance at the conference or the retreat. You can donate to the retreat online. Be sure to check the box at the bottom stating, “I’m donating to a specific event” and enter “WoC Retreat.” You can also call the CCDA office at 773-475-7370.

Do some self-examination. Examine your own relationships and organizations to determine how they can be more hospitable to women of color’s three-dimensional existence. Reflect upon your vision of indigenous leadership development and how dimensions of race, gender, and power may be at play. Did you think the indigeous leaders would all be male or perhaps assume that the development would be done by Whites?

Educate yourself on the needs and experiences of women of color in social justice ministry. Learn how our needs differ from those of white women and men of color. If you’re attending CCDA, go to workshops and plenaries that feature women of color talking about our experiences. There are plenty of opportunities this year, with speakers such as Alexia Salvaterria, Christena Cleveland, Rahiel Tesfamariam, Sonia Stewart, Sandra Van Opostal, Q Nellum, and Catherine Gilliard, among others. There are workshops on women’s leadership development as well as upon issues that disproportionately impact women of color, including domestic violence, human trafficking, and trauma. There is a Wednesday night art and jazz session featuring Shanequa Gay, who uses art to address issues of race, gender, and justice. On Thursday at 1:30pm, I’ll be teaching a workshop on the StrongBlackWoman. Buy and read books by and about women of color. The more you learn, the more you will understand the need for the retreat. If you still don’t understand, it’s because you haven’t learned enough, you haven’t listened enough.

Spread the word. Tell other women of color about the retreat. Ask friends and colleagues to support the retreat. Direct them to this article as well as other blogs by women of color.

Starting Well: Self-Care Amidst the Academic Frenzy

Passion-Planner-1024x689Start semester well. I wrote the three words in the box labeled, “This week’s focus,” in my new Passion Planner. It had been two decades since I had used a paper planner. I was an early adopter of electronic organizers. Before smartphones and WiFi-enabled PDAs, I kept track of my appointments and tasks using my Sony organizer with its flip-up telephone modem. It was a lot easier than writing “Statistics class” in a planner 24 times in one semester. It’s worked for me through two master’s degrees, a doctorate, and my stints as assistant professor in three institutions.

Lately, though, I’ve felt pulled in so many different directions by varying projects, people, and responsibilities (is this post-tenure life?) that I needed something different. I needed some way to help me to keep track of the big picture, to keep focus on my priorities, and to keep me from being over-committed…well, to keep me from being ridiculously over-committed.

If there’s anything that I’ve learned with 20 years of experience in higher education, it’s that the beginning of the semester is a perfect time for losing sight of one’s priorities, especially those that have to do with our well-being and professional development. There is no gradual transition from the slower pace of summer. Fall term starts at full tilt, a two-week frenzy of faculty and committee meetings, workshops, orientation events for new students, convocation, and social gatherings. In this midst of this, there’s the scramble to finalize syllabi, set up course websites, and to prep the first classes. There’s the anxiety of new students who worry about what’s ahead and the anxiety of graduating students who…worry about what’s ahead. And for some unfathomable reason, there is no sabbatical from the planning committees that are ramping up for the fall conference season.

It’s enough to drive any sane person crazy (although it begs the question whether a supposedly smart person who chooses this as a lifestyle is sane). At a minimum, it’s enough to overwhelm typical routines of spiritual disciplines, self-care, and personal development. The struggle to make an early meeting pushes aside the morning devotional; an orientation event overrides writing time; sheer fatigue cancels the afternoon workout. If it were just one week, it might be okay. But for many of us, it’s at least two, which makes recovery harder.

This year, as our classes began, I set my intention for the week: “Start semester well.” Starting well was not about being the perfect professor, the one who finalized and printed her syllabi, set up the Blackboard sites, and prepped her first lectures last week. It was not about being two weeks ahead (or more) of the students in terms of course readings and activities. Starting well was about not losing sight of the big picture. And because I’d just done my first “passion roadmap,” I had a very good idea of what that big picture was: love God; serve God’s people; remaining cancer free; be a good wife and mother; be financially ready for retirement; and be a badass scholar-teacher (well duh…there is a reason I’ve chosen this insanity, after all).

When I drew my passion roadmap, I was surprised at just how few of my lifetime goals were reflected in my daily activities. Being a great scholar-teacher was actually the lowest of my priorities but it probably took up most of my daily energies. I rarely scheduled explicit time toward my other goals. That was about to change.

Starting the semester well meant that in addition to the classes, meetings, and office hours, my schedule would also include time for meditation, chapel, writing, and spending time with my family. It meant that the frenzy of the first two days of the week would be followed by a midweek day of restoration, which included getting a massage and cooking a healthy meal that would get my family through the week’s end. It meant my personal to-do list included exercising at least three times and going to the farmer’s market. It meant showing up for classes without having a perfect plan for the semester (and being upfront with the students about it). It meant letting go.black-woman-meditating-e1325516643421

It was probably the healthiest first week that I’ve had. And it was the very sort of discipleship that I want to exemplify for my students. Because soon, if they don’t already, they will know the pressures of being pulled in multiple directions by ministry. And they will need to know how to start well.

Anxiety and the StrongBlackWoman

I’m anxious. There, I said it. Ironically, saying it publicly is not as freeing as I’d hoped it would be. In fact, it’s somewhat anxiety-producing. Perhaps I should stop writing now, delete this line, and move on.

No, it must be said. It is part of my recovery as a StrongBlackWoman. You see, a SBW isn’t supposed to be anxious. At least, most people think she’s not supposed to be. A SBW is supposed to be…well, strong. Impervious to fear, worry, and anxiety. She’s supposed to have everything – especially her emotions – under control. Her strong religious faith (a SBW is usually religious) is a prophylactic against worry. She stands on platitudes such as “God won’t give me more than I can bear” and “If God brought me to it, He’ll bring me through it.” And if she is an especially good Christian, she can quote or paraphrase off actual Biblical verses such as the one about lilies and sparrows (cf. Matthew 6:25-34). And if those don’t work, she is simply to immerse herself in more busyness and keep her feelings to herself.

That’s precisely what I’ve done for most of my life – kept my fears and anxiety to myself. About ten years ago, I realized that I probably have a strong biological predisposition to anxiety. A lot of people in my family have a lot of fears: dogs, scary movies, lightning, New York cabbies. Some of my relatives (who shall remain nameless) practically jump out of their skin at the least provocation. Some of us are pretty open about our fears, prompting the rest of us to label them “scary,” as in “Chile, you kno’ she ain’t goin’ to that movie. She so scary.” Others suffer silently. Since I’m a clinical psychologist, some of my relatives have come to me over the years to talk about these issues – the panic attacks, obsessions and compulsions, the prescriptions. And all the while, I’ve thought that it was strange that I didn’t have an anxiety disorder given my familial predisposition and my personal history of trauma.

Somehow, I overlooked a lot of symptoms – the nightmares and insomnia that started by my sixth birthday, my fear of the dark, my refusal to walk alone in my suburban neighborhood during the day because it seemed too deserted, my self-consciousness, and my chronic mental multi-tasking. The symptoms have appeared – and disappeared – at different stages in my life. And most of the time, they’ve been subclinical, meaning that they were not severe enough to require professional intervention. Mindfulness-based activities such as yoga and meditation, along with good nutrition and exercise, were sufficient to keep the symptoms in check.

Then came parenthood. The hypervigilance required of parents during the first few years of a child’s life is enough to trigger any subclinical anxiety problems into a full-scale clinical syndrome. Next came a one-year period of tremendous loss, trauma, and change, the cumulative effects of which created multiple cracks in the dam of strength that I’d built over the years. Finally, two months ago, I came home to discover that someone had broken into our house, just the right trauma to unleash a Katrina-like flood of anxiety over my already weakened defenses.

The typical SBW reaction would have been to act as if all were okay. If I were operating in full SBW mode, in response to queries about how I was feeling, I would have offered some heroically faithful retort like, “God is my fortress and my shield!” But I haven’t been in full SBW mode for a long time. In fact, I have been in recovery for almost ten years. Granted, there have been a few relapses, but at this point in my journey, I have no interested in being a myth. I am committed to discovering and embracing my authentic, fully human self, including my needs and vulnerabilities. So I told the truth: I’m not okay. I’ve had problems with anxiety for a long time and this just puts me over the edge. I am afraid, more afraid than I can tolerate on my own.

For the first time, rather than suppressing my fears, I owned them. Instead of trying to deny my anxiety (to myself and others), I decided to make sure that my anxious self received the care that I needed. I continued my weekly therapy sessions, made sure that I exercised and ate well, and went for a massage. But when, after a few weeks, my anxiety level remained sufficiently high enough to jeopardize my sleep and my blood pressure, I took another step: anti-anxiety medication.

As a psychologist, I tend to favor “talk” therapy over medication. And in this case, I knew that my symptoms would eventually decrease and return to their normal levels. Yet I also agreed with my therapist who, as both a licensed counselor and priest, reminded me that God does not require us to suffer needlessly. Suffering anxiety was not doing me, or anyone else, any good. In fact, with every day of elevated blood pressure increasing my risk of eventual stroke, a few months of untreated anxiety could have a much worse long-term impact.

I wish that more of my SBW sisters would recognize their problems with anxiety and seek treatment, whether it be counseling (with a properly trained and licensed therapist), medication, or both. Despite the myths about our mental and spiritual fortitude, SBW are actually quite anxious. Epidemiological research consistently demonstrates that Black women in the U.S. have a relatively high rate of anxiety disorders. Nearly 1 in 5 Black women has a diagnosable phobia, higher than any other racial-ethnic group. Black women also have significantly higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than Black men or women of other racial/ethnic groups. It turns out that hidden behind the myth of strength is a lot of unnecessary suffering.

The first step in releasing our fears is to admit them. Huh, this is starting to feel liberating, after all.