“Be not afraid of discomfort. If you can’t put yourself in a situation where you are uncomfortable, then you will never grow. You will never change. You will never learn.”

Jason Reynolds

This year is teaching us a lot about stress. So far, 2020 forced us into social isolation, made us fear for our health & safety, and is now challenging our beliefs about race, justice, and law enforcement. We’ve been served up a double-decker anxiety sandwich with extra crazy sauce.

As a result of these challenges, White people are being called to examine our personal role in a system of injustice and brutality against Black people. A system that gives us many advantages, simply due to the color of our skin. A system that has strangled Black individuals and communities since the day the first African slaves set foot on North American soil. A system that has refused accountability for the deaths of people like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd.

It’s time for White people to get uncomfortable. We need to rethink some of the assumptions we have about success, hard work, and achievement. We need to recognize our privilege, acknowledge it, and admit our unfair advantage without defensiveness or excuses. But if we try to sustain the level of discomfort required for real change without intentional, healthy stress management, things are gonna get ugly.

I fully recognize that the stress of “checking my privilege” as a White person is microscopic when compared to the burden of systemic racism that Black people live with every day. But it’s stressful, nonetheless. And if we don’t take intentional steps to balance the stress of this soul-searching, nothing will change. Because we’ll get overwhelmed, numb our emotions, burn out, and give up.

I’ve caught myself brooding with my jaw clenched over news reports. I’ve lost sleep to ugly, disruptive thoughts or emotions of anger and helplessness. I’ve felt the queasiness of catching myself in a racist reaction and questioned if I’m the person I once thought I was. I’ve been uncomfortable, and that’s a good thing.

But if unchecked, that clenched jaw might turn into a three-day migraine, and the sleepless hours could become a pattern of insomnia or panic attacks. That’s when the temptation to avoid discomfort becomes overwhelming, and it’s easy to call it quits.

The key to success when balancing discomfort and stress is using strategies that optimize your body’s built-in stress response system instead of relying on “happy thoughts” as a path to stress relief.

Your body’s stress response system is called the HPA Axis (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal), and it is in charge of revving you up in response to threats (real or perceived). It does this by initiating a state of “fight or flight” via chemical messengers like adrenaline and cortisol. If your body’s stress response stays “turned on” for too long or triggered too often, it can result in physical and mental health problems like panic attacks, high blood pressure, insomnia, weight gain, anxiety, indigestion, headaches, hormone imbalance…the list goes on.

That’s why it’s important to use stress relief strategies that target the body’s physical response during periods of sustained mental and emotional discomfort. These strategies may be as simple as downloading a 4-7-8 breathing app, spending 20 minutes on your yoga mat or on the treadmill, or putting down your phone for a half hour before bedtime. Or they may involve changing your diet, eliminating caffeine, or limiting alcohol intake.

In order to create a society where justice and equality is real for Black Americans, it’s time for White people to get uncomfortable about our privilege. And in order for us to embrace and sustain the discomfort required for change, we need to prioritize healthy stress management, mentally, emotionally, AND physically.

Dr. Kate Lyzenga-Dean is a holistic stress & wellness consultant who helps busy people discover healthy stress relief strategies that actually work! For some steps you can take right away, sign up for your free Stress Less Starter Kit!