This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of ESSENCE magazine, available on newsstands now.
If you had seen me back then, shopping at the grocery store or walking my dog late at night, you wouldn’t have guessed anything was wrong. Unless you asked me how I was doing. Maybe I would have told the truth: “I feel like I’m falling apart.” But that’s not the kind of convo you have in the produce aisle. For most of us, feeling overwhelmed is not something we are willing to admit at all.
For me, it happened when my daughter became ill with a rare and potentially deadly disease. I didn’t crack during the countless nights I spent sleeping in hospital chairs. I didn’t cry as I scoured the Internet searching for possible cures. But when I woke one night to find my once-vibrant teenager so weakened by her treatments that she was crawling to the bathroom on her hands and knees, something inside me broke. This cruelty heaped upon my child was more than I could bear. I stopped sleeping. I barely ate. I felt a suffocating tightness in my chest. Even worse than the physical symptoms was my sudden inability to focus on anything other than getting my child well. Like countless women whose lives suddenly take horrible and unexpected turns, I was drowning in a tsunami of emotions. I was totally overwhelmed.
To date, there exists no designation for “overwhelm” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the reference guide physicians and mental-health experts use to diagnose mental illness. Even so, this state of being—which can come on suddenly and last for days, weeks or even months—can strike anyone, and it feels debilitating when it does. Boston-based Kerry-Ann -Williams, M.D., host of the Black Mental Health Matters podcast, explains that emotional overwhelm can manifest in a myriad of physical symptoms, including decreased libido, heart palpitations, headaches, heartburn, diarrhea and constipation. “Sometimes people will end up vomiting and they’re not sure why,” she says. “Stress can cause that to happen.”
Williams also notes that for some people with histories of depression, anxiety or addiction, periods of sustained distress may cause their symptoms to flare. That’s why it’s especially important to consult a physician or therapist if you have a preexisting vulnerability and are grappling with life circumstances that cause unmanageable stress. Even without a history of depression, over time, feelings of overwhelm can catapult some women into despair.
Maybe I would have told the truth: ‘I feel like I’m falling apart.
Dianna Porter’s* life began to unravel in the summer of 2018. At the time, Porter, a single mother, was residing in a spacious home in New Orleans with her partner. “It was the most beautiful place I ever lived,” she recalls. “Everything was exactly the way I wanted.” Porter, who was then working as a waitress, was the couple’s primary breadwinner, though her partner helped with household bills and childcare. It was, she says now, a precarious arrangement. When she and her partner broke up, Porter suddenly found herself “hemorrhaging” money. “I was spending way more on childcare than I was earning,” she says. Her descent into financial ruin was quick, painful and humiliating. “I tried to sell my things,” says Porter, 39. “But nobody was buying. I think they could sense my desperation. Just looking at me, you could tell something was wrong.” Porter’s weight fluctuated wildly, and she lost half her hair. She became so self-conscious, she started telling people she was a decade older than her age. “The stress marched right across my face,” she says.
After months of struggling to support her child, Porter finally gave up and moved to another state to live with her mom. “I felt like a failure,” she says. “I lost my home, furniture and artwork. Everything I had accumulated as an adult was gone.” And then she sank even further. “I had so much stress in my body, physically I could not get out of bed,” Porter recalls. “Even something as simple as buying shampoo to help with my hair loss felt impossible. I felt drained, diseased and uncentered.”
Life coach and healer Helen MacMillan has helped many clients cope with states of overwhelm. “I describe overwhelm as a mishmash of emotions,” she says. “It’s like a ball of yarn—you can’t tease the threads apart. So when you ask someone who is overwhelmed how they feel, often they will say, ‘I don’t know what I am feeling.’ They may be stressed, anxious, confused. They may have trouble thinking clearly or become highly distractable. Or they may go into hyperdrive and have a hard time shutting off their thoughts.”
It’s natural to feel knocked off your feet by circumstances over which you have no control—a health scare, a financial crisis, a global pandemic. But Black women, who often carry a heavy load, may be more vulnerable than most. Eighty-four percent of Black mothers—married or single—are the primary or co-breadwinners in their families, according to a 2019 report from the Center for American Progress. And with almost 50 percent of Black children being raised by single moms, we often shoulder our family’s entire financial burden. Some of us are stretched paper-thin—providing for children, partners, partners’ children, elderly parents and other family members who need a helping hand. And we do it all on salaries that average 63 cents to every dollar a White man earns. We are underpaid, overworked and perpetually exhausted—and that’s on a good day. And yet, when life throws us a curveball, our default is to straighten our backs, grit our teeth and press on.
For many, ‘superwoman’ feels like an expectation, a role we are obliged to assume. That pressure comes with a price.
Three years ago, Nana Dagadu was working full-time at a nonprofit and finishing her doctorate in public health when her marriage fell apart. Dagadu, 37, found herself embroiled in a bitter divorce and solo parenting her two children, just as the country went into lockdown. “I was sleep-deprived before this all happened,” she says. “During the pandemic, I was trying to make up work hours when the kids were in bed and do my own legwork for the divorce lawyer to save money. I went from sleeping five or six hours a night to sleeping three or four.”
The situation quickly became untenable. “Physically, functionally and emotionally, I realized, I can’t do this,” Dagadu says. “I can’t be on a work call while my kids are melting down.” Still, she kept telling herself, “I have to handle this alone.”
Like many Black women, Dagadu was struggling to live up to an ideal. “There is this lie we tell ourselves, and that society tells us, about how we are supposed to be so strong and hold it all together,” she says. It took a neighbor offering to help with childcare before Dagadu finally let go. “It was like an intervention,” she recalls. “My son was acting out. I was in tears. And my neighbor was like, ‘You cannot do this. You will crash and burn.’”
The notion of the “Strong Black Woman” is an enduring, almost mythical ideal. But this vision of ourselves—as tireless nurturers and strivers, defenders of our people, able to rise above any obstacle and persevere—is more than an aspirational fantasy. For many, “superwoman” feels like an expectation, a role we are obliged to assume. That pressure comes with a price.
In 2010, Cheryl L. Woods- Giscombé, Ph.D., R.N., an associate dean at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Nursing, published her groundbreaking study Superwoman Schema: African American Women’s Views on Stress, Strength, and Health. Woods-Giscombé explained that the concept of the Strong Black Woman rose to prominence, in part, to counter negative stereotypes of Black women as “lazy” and “welfare queens.” Most significant, Woods-Giscombé also noted a link between superwoman behavior, such as caregiving, stoicism and self-sacrifice, and a variety of adverse health conditions—including disproportionately high rates of cardiovascular disease, obesity and lupus. Almost a decade later, a 2019 study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly found that Black women who endorse the superwoman ideal are more inclined to exhibit “low self-compassion” and less likely to ask for help. This behavior, the study’s authors say, is associated with increased rates of -loneliness, depression and anxiety—the same symptoms often experienced by women who feel overwhelmed.
But here’s the good news: Emotional overwhelm is often a temporary state. Symptoms recede when the stressors are resolved. In the meantime, we have plenty of advice to help you weather the storm.
Talk to Yourself
Days after Trudy Susan got engaged in 2016, she -discovered that her mother had stage four cancer.
“Overwhelmed doesn’t begin to describe how I felt,” says the 39-year-old Atlanta-based business consultant.
“It was like being in the center of a tornado.” Susan eventually found a way to comfort herself. “I made video diaries on my phone,” she says. “There is this stigma about talking to yourself, like you’re crazy. But it’s so cathartic, and essential, to face yourself and get it all out.”
Find a Distraction
In February 2020, corporate-event planner Star Truman, 49* was looking forward to the best year of her career. Then the pandemic hit. By June, every event she’d been hired to produce was canceled. “It had taken me more than two decades to build my company,” she says. “I felt like -everything I’d worked for was snatched out from under me.” For weeks, Truman would wake up and burst into tears. “My usual stance when I have a problem is to figure out how to solve it,” she says. “But with the pandemic, that wasn’t an option. I felt completely helpless.” At first, Truman tried to drown her sorrows. “I started drinking cocktails at 9 A.M.,” she admits. “I’d think: I literally have nothing else to do.”
Truman was not alone. At the height of the pandemic, Black women experienced a 173 percent increase in alcohol consumption, according to the nonprofit research group RTI International. But there are other ways to unwind. Susan lost herself in reruns of Saved by the Bell. Porter devoured hours of YouTube self-improvement videos and, later, taught herself to crotchet, creating dozens of baby blankets she gifted to friends. “It gave me a sense of accomplishment” she says, and a way to counter feelings of defeat.
A few months into lockdown, Truman, worried that her drinking was getting out of control, stopped the morning cocktails and started walking up to seven miles a day instead. The fresh air and exercise elevated her mood; indeed, research shows that physical activity and spending time in nature can protect against depression and anxiety. But just as important, the excursions occupied Truman’s mind. She became fascinated by local history, spending hours researching names on the gravestones at a local cemetery where she walked. “I read about people who’d survived the Civil War,” she says. “It reminded me that time marches on.”
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Be Kind to Yourself
“Give yourself some grace,” says Pittsburgh-based therapist Sharise Nance, L.C.S.W. “Acknowledge that you’re human and doing the best you can.” Sometimes extending this small kindness to yourself can bring amazing rewards. “When I was wracked with self-loathing and saying horrible things to myself,” says Porter, “I noticed I would attract that same negative energy from others. When I started being nicer to myself, good people came into my life. It sounds cliché, but it’s true: You really have to love yourself through the tough times.”
For Dagadu, learning to check in with herself and attend to her needs was a “turning point,” she says. “Before, I had to-do lists that had everyone on them but me. It took my coworkers, my church, the neighbor, my mom, my sisters and my therapist really pushing before I finally let that sink in.” These days, Dagadu says, she regularly asks herself, What do you need right now? She started prioritizing getting sleep over doing the dishes. She even explained to her children that on Saturdays, “Mommy has spa days”—when she lights a candle and enjoys a leisurely bath. “I told my kids I need ‘mommy time’ so I can be a better mom,” she says. At first, Dagadu’s children granted her only a few minutes of uninterrupted quiet. But on a recent Saturday, she had almost an entire hour to herself.
No time? No problem. Life coach MacMillan says even small acts of self-love can help calm our nervous system. She suggests a variation on a healing practice known as “havening.” Hold yourself in a loose embrace, with your arms crossed in front of your body. Swipe your hands down along the opposite arms, from shoulder to elbow, as you exhale. You might also send yourself a soothing message. Try whispering, “You are okay.” “It’s so important to be gentle with yourself,” says MacMillan. “That’s why havening is so delicious. It’s about self-compassion.”
Move Your Body
There is a reason your back aches and your neck feels stiff. Stress is held in the body, explains Nance, a certified clinical trauma specialist. The surest way to feel better is to move. “I’m not saying people have to run a marathon or do high-intensity interval training,” she advises. “Going for a walk or doing some stretching will help.” During my daughter’s illness, I would roll out a yoga mat and do downward dogs beside her hospital bed after she fell asleep. Some days, those were the only moments when I felt at peace.
Take a Deep Breath
Studies show that practicing mindful breathing is one of the most effective techniques to reduce stress, insomnia and even blood glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Here’s a quick tip to help you get started: Close your eyes and imagine the rhythmic breathing of deep slumber. Inhale through your nose for the count of four, and exhale through your mouth for the count of six. Try ten soothing breaths, four times a day.
Ride the Wave
Feeling overwhelmed can trigger waves of unpredictable emotions, including irritability, guilt, sadness or grief. “Sometimes people talk about having unexpected tearfulness,” says physician Williams. “So, someone might ask you how you’re doing, and suddenly you start crying as though everything has come crashing down.” When emotions feel unbearable, remind yourself that they too shall pass. “The metaphor I use with intense emotions,” says Nance, “is ‘visitors.’ They may stay for a long time or a short time. Some are very annoying; others can be loud. Some seem like they’re never going to leave. But at some point, they will make their way out of here.” And then comes the calm.
Appreciate All You’ve Learned
When the storm has passed—and yes, it will—take a moment to reflect. “There are many gifts that come out of our most painful experiences,” says MacMillan, author of The Gift of Pain: An Invitation to Self-Love. “Instead of asking, ‘Why is life punishing me?’ ask yourself, ‘How is this experience serving me?’” Caring for her mother made Susan more compassionate. Dagadu is now more protective of her time. And I am filled with wonder and gratitude that my child is on the other side of the storm. I wouldn’t wish calamity on anyone. But should you ever land in a state of overwhelm, remember, being gentle with yourself is a superpower, too.
Jeannine Amber (@jamberstar), the coauthor of Rabbit: A Memoir, is based in Brooklyn. *Some subjects names have been changed.