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Julia A. Boyd psychotherapist and author of Can I Get a Witness? Dr. Angela Neal-Barnett's wisdom, direction, and practical techniques for addressing and managing anxiety, panic, and fear are right on time for a nation of Black women who are sick and tired of being sick, tired, and afraid. Soothe Your Nerves will be a must-have on my clients' resource reading guide. Dr. Neal-Barnett helps to shatter the old myths of what it means to be a strong Black woman while giving us encouraging wisdom on being today's healthy Black woman. Thanks so much for your wisdom.
Gail Elizabeth Wyatt, Ph.D. author of Stolen Women: Reclaiming Our Sexuality, Taking Back Our Lives and coauthor of No More Clueless Sex: Ten Sexual Secrets that Can Work for Both of You Dr. Angela Neal-Barnett uncovers a much ignored problem and identifies strategies for healing the effects of anxiety on women's lives. This is a book for everyone. There are few psychologists who can tell the stories of those who have suffered from anxiety disorders. Dr. Neal-Barnett speaks for others as no one else can. Let the healing begin.
Dr. Jeff Gardere television and radio host author of Love Prescription Soothe Your Nerves addresses the major "invisible" health issues for women of color: anxiety, panic, and fear! Dr. Barnett provides a comprehensive explanation, in laymen's terms, of the causes and predisposing factors of these emotional conditions and their destructive effects on Black women. She offers self-help exercises and commonsense, workable solutions that range from conventional medicine to holistic and spiritual treatments. A must-read for women, men, and treatment professionals, Soothe Your Nerves offers hope and healing, which will invariably result in the empowerment of Black women in all aspects of their lives.
Renita J. Weems, Ph.D. author of Showing Mary and Just a Sister Away The sin and shame is not in suffering from an anxiety disorder. The sin and shame is in failing to call it what it is and in not getting the help we need and deserve as African-American women. Dr. Angela Neal-Barnett helps us face our disorders and shows us where to turn for help.
Anita Bunkley author of Mirrored Life Soothe Your Nerves by Dr. Angela Neal-Barnett is a must-read for all women of color. The information is extremely valuable and presented in a manner that allows Dr. Neal-Barnett's message to hit home. Even if you don't suffer from "nerves," you need to read this book and become better informed about the conditions that may affect the well-being of the women in your life.
Yvonne Pointer-Triplet author of Behind the Death of a Child As a Community Activist, primarily in the African-American community, I witness many women who unfortunately carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. In Soothe Your Nerves, Dr. Angela Neal-Barnett has provided us with the key that will unlock the shackles of pressure. By defining our anxieties, we can realize that we no longer have to buy the bacon and fry it up in a pan. We are free at last!
INTRODUCTION: Bad Nerves or What?
Lately, every time I go to church, I miss church. I'm in the building; I just rarely make it to the sanctuary. When I do, the choir has sung and the sermon's half over. Every Sunday for the past year I've left the house with my husband and preschooler determined to participate in an entire service. It hasn't happened. Instead, somewhere between children's church and the sanctuary, I am stopped by somebody who really needs to talk.
And it's not just at church. These days it seems everywhere I go, someone wants to speak with me. At the grocery store, at funerals, at the library, even at the carousel in the mall, someone is always stopping me. When I go into my office, it's the same thing. My e-mail and voice mail are filled with messages from women who need to talk.
What do these women want to talk to me about? What is so important that they lay in wait for me on a Sunday morning, seek me out in public places, and e-mail me halfway across the country? Anxiety and fear, only that's not what they call it. "Nerves," they say, or "This situation is working my last nerve" or "My nerves are bad." Because I am a psychologist who specializes in anxiety among African-American women, they believe talking or writing to me will make it better. What they fail to realize, and what I gently point out, is that talking to me in the hallway for a few minutes during church, snatching a few minutes with me in the cereal aisle, or receiving an e-mail reply from me is not sufficient. Overcoming anxiety and fear involves a daily plan of action.
As these women share their stories, I am reminded of the first Black woman I ever met with bad nerves. Her name was Mrs. Golden Williams, and she was the lead soprano in the Prince of Peace AME Church choir. When I was a teenager, Prince of Peace was famous for its choir. Many of the members had sung professionally, and the choir director had sung with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. People actually came to church on time so that they wouldn't miss the choir. There were a number of great singers in that choir, but Mrs. Williams was the best. She had a five-octave range and sounded to me a lot like Minnie Riperton. Her signature song was "It Is Well with My Soul." I used to get goose bumps every time she sang the last line. One Sunday, Mrs. Williams wasn't in the choir. She missed the next three Sundays, showed up, sang "It Is Well with My Soul," and, to my knowledge, never came to church or sang in the choir again.
Twelve Sundays later, after sitting through Mrs. Bancroft's pale rendition of the song, I asked my friend Jackie, who at fifteen knew all the church's business, what happened to Mrs. Williams. "Angie," Jackie said, "Mrs. Williams has bad nerves."
Not long after Jackie told me this, I witnessed Mrs. Williams's bad nerves for myself. I was in the grocery store with my father when I noticed a familiar figure in the produce section. It was Mrs. Williams, but she looked odd. She was breathing funny and clutching her chest. She ran up to my father and begged him to help her. He walked her to the front of the store and arranged for one of the bag boys to drive her home. When he returned, he shook his head and said, "It's her nerves."
It wasn't until years later, when I was training to be a psychologist, that I realized Mrs. Williams's bad nerves had another name: anxiety. Knowing what I know now about anxiety, I believe Mrs. Williams became so afraid of getting nervous that she stopped going places. She stopped singing, and the congregation lost a voice that had been soothing to their souls. She stopped shopping and had meals delivered to her home. Eventually, she stopped going anywhere and just stayed home. Until the day she died, Mrs. Williams never went farther than her own backyard.
Over the course of fifteen years of research on anxiety among African Americans, I've met, talked, counseled, and listened to hundreds of Mrs. Williamses — beautiful, talented Black women with bad nerves. There was Maya, a lawyer whose fear of criticism and failure kept her from being promoted; Willa Mae, a lifelong friend of my mother's whose fear of cats caused her to stand in the middle of our driveway and holler whenever she came to visit; and Tee, who appeared to have it all but whose anxiety made it impossible for her to go anywhere but to work and back. In this book I'll share their stories and the stories of others whose debilitating anxiety and fear prevented them from being all the Creator intended them to be. Each of the women you will meet in this book thought that Black women didn't get anxious. Each of them felt as if they had lost control of their lives. Many of them had. The good news is most were able to regain control.
Through the years as I've talked with anxious Black women, regardless of their age, income, or status in life, the first question they always ask me is "Why?" "Why is this happening to me?" "Why am I afraid?" "Why can't I get over this?" Black women can spend years trying to find out why they are anxious and fearful, and if and when they do, it doesn't make a difference. The anxiety and fear still remain. In fact, the search for why can increase the anxiety and fear. The key to overcoming anxiety and fear is not why but what. What is anxiety? What is fear? What effect are they having on my life? What can I do to overcome them?
Anxiety is the perception or awareness of a future threat. An anxious Black woman "just knows" something bad is going to happen. She doesn't know what, she doesn't know when, but in her mind she truly believes terrible things will come to pass. This imagined bad thing is called a perceived future threat. This type of threat is unrealistic and far worse than anything that actually happens. However, to a Black woman who is experiencing anxiety, it feels very real. The fact that it feels so real creates a sense of apprehension or impending doom. The mere thought of the perceived threat places a Black woman in a state of being constantly on guard and agitated, known as hypervigilance. She is always watching and waiting for the threat to occur. Her senses are sharpened, her muscles are tight, and she is perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop. Hypervigilance can be exhausting and create impairment or cautiousness in one's performance. As a result, many anxious Black women choose either to play it safe or not to play at all.
Sheila was the DJ for a popular morning radio show. Listeners were drawn to her bright and bubbly manner. Recently named the most popular media personality in the state, Sheila was very proud of her work and her accomplishments. The station owners were so pleased with her success they gave her a huge raise and a car. But lately Sheila felt uncomfortable when she was on the air. She couldn't quite put her finger on what was wrong; all she knew was she couldn't shake the feeling that disaster was around the corner. As these feelings increased, she felt more and more on edge, and it became harder and harder for her to complete her shift. Realizing she couldn't continue this way, last week Sheila announced she was giving up her radio show indefinitely.
Fear is a related emotion but somewhat different from anxiety. Whereas anxiety is the result of an imagined or perceived threat, fear is brought on by an imminent or immediate threat. A fearful Black woman has a physical reaction to the threat. Her heart may start to beat faster, her breathing may become shallower, and she may start to shake. When a Black woman is experiencing fear, she makes one of two choices: flight or fright. The woman who chooses flight runs away or avoids the thing or situation that makes her afraid. The woman who chooses fright remains in the situation or presence of the thing or person that makes her fearful, but the fear paralyzes her and renders her powerless.
I can see some of you shaking your heads as you read this section. Common sense says that when you are in danger, of course you run! But there is a difference between the commonsense healthy form of fear and debilitating fear. The fear we experience while crossing the street and a car is bearing down on us that we didn't see until the last minute helps us jump out of the way more quickly. The fear we experience when we are caught in the middle of a thunderstorm reminds us to seek shelter quickly. But fear that is chronic and prevents us from doing things that we want is not healthy and is detrimental to our well-being.
For as long as I can remember, Billie wanted to be a doctor. When we were seniors in high school, she won a full scholarship to a combined college/medical school program, a full scholarship to Cornell, and a full scholarship to the local university. She turned them all down and went into a two-year nursing program. When I asked her why, she said, "I'm scared I'll fail. When they offered me those scholarships, my whole body started shaking, and I just wanted to run away screaming no. I just can't do it, Angie. I'm just too scared."
I was stunned. Billie had never received a grade lower than an A in her life. Calculus and physics were a breeze to her. She had wanted to be a doctor longer than I had wanted to be a psychologist, and I had wanted to be a psychologist since I was twelve. I couldn't understand her action. I now know the emotional and physical aspects of her fear made her too afraid to try.
In Soothe Your Nerves, you will learn about five common forms of anxiety and fear:
1. Panic attacks. Panic attacks are the most well known form of anxiety. Many Black women mistakenly refer to panic attacks as anxiety attacks. A panic attack consists of a short, clear-cut period of apprehension and fear that is accompanied by physical symptoms such as sweating, rapid heart rate, and difficulty breathing.
2. Social phobia. Fear of being criticized in social or performance situations. You may hear some psychologists refer to it as social anxiety disorder.
3. Specific phobia. Fear that occurs in the presence of objects, animals, or nonevaluative, nonperformance situations.
4. Generalized anxiety. A chronic, debilitating form of anxiety involving excessive worry and physical tension.
5. Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Anxiety characterized by intrusive thoughts and the ritualistic behaviors that attempt to control them.
These forms of anxiety cost this country over $63 billion in lost wages, slower work production, medical visits, and nonmedical treatment. The material price tag is overshadowed by the incalculable emotional costs. Anxiety and fear exact a toll on Black women's physical, emotional, and spiritual lives. Unchecked, they can cost us time with our children, more-loving relationships with our spouses and significant others, friendships and personal relationships, and the deferment or death of our dreams.
It doesn't have to be this way. I cannot tell you how many anxious, fearful Black women I have met and continue to meet, who with the proper knowledge and understanding could begin the journey to overcome their anxiety. But information and understanding about anxiety and how it manifests itself is not readily available in many Black communities. As a result, Black women try to deal with anxiety problems the best way they know how. Unfortunately, the methods they use to cope often make the problem worse.
Some Black women choose to engage in self-medication by drinking alcohol or using drugs. They fail to realize that once the effects of the alcohol or drugs wear off, they're just as anxious as before — and on top of that they're hung over. Some Black women choose to rely on their faith, believing that if it was just a little stronger, they would be delivered. When their fear and anxiety don't go away, they blame themselves for a lack of faith. What follows for many is a period of depression that goes along with the anxiety.
Other Black women believe being anxious is their lot in life. They think no one or no thing can help them. These women are caught up in a negative cycle of thoughts brought on by their anxious state. One of the biggest problems with anxiety is that it perpetuates "what if" thinking. Even after the physical experience of anxiety is gone, the "what if" thinking remains: "What if" it happens again? "What if" I mess up? "What if" what you tell me in this book doesn't help? That is why, once the physical symptoms are alleviated, women must work on the mental component, the anxious "what if" thoughts.
As African-American women, we are descendants of queens of the Nile. When it comes to anxiety and fear, many of us are queens of denial. Even though we know something is wrong, we decide that we are not going to admit it to ourselves or anyone else. In a way it makes sense: If we admit to being anxious, we might find ourselves in a worse emotional state than we are already in. Denial, however, can keep anxiety at bay for only a little while.
Twenty-five years have passed since I witnessed Mrs. Williams's bad nerves in the grocery store. Back then, the information I share in this book wasn't available. Twenty-five years ago Black women weren't anxious; they suffered from what psychologists called excessive nervousness or neurosis. Black folks said it was bad nerves and, like my father, just shook their heads when they talked about these women.
Times have changed. Today we know that bad nerves are another name for anxiety, and anxiety has various forms. Slowly but surely Black women are gaining an awareness of anxiety and its debilitating effects. Over the past two years the Black women's magazines Essence and Heart and Soul have featured articles on panic attacks, generalized anxiety, and social anxiety. The popular Showtime TV drama Soul Food features a main character, Terry, a successful Black woman who has developed panic attacks. The show's realistic portrayal of panic and its associated behaviors put a Black perspective on this particular form of anxiety.
It's twenty-five years too late for Mrs. Golden Williams; she and her wonderful voice departed this life without ever finding a way to soothe her nerves. But it is not too late for other Black women who want to overcome anxiety and fear. This book was written for you. So little is spoken or written about Black women and anxiety that many of you believe you are the only one suffering. Nothing could be further from the truth. Written from a psychological, spiritual, and Black perspective, this book is a guide for understanding and overcoming anxiety disorder. As you read, you may recognize yourself or someone you love. It is my hope you will also recognize that you are not alone and that various forms of help are available. By the time you reach the end of this book, you will have the information necessary for developing a plan to overcome the anxiety and fear in your life.
Copyright © 2003 by Angela Neal-Barnett, Ph.D.
Posted July 21, 2004
Soothe Your Nerves explores a topic that many women, especially black women, don¿t discuss but find that we suffer from a lot. ¿Nerves¿ is what we call it, when in fact we are suffering from a treatable and curable ailment called Anxiety. Many black women have been raised to believe that we shouldn¿t seek or accept professional help for problems and we¿ve been so conditioned to adapt to our problems that we readily don¿t recognize we suffer from this condition. Using examples of people she¿s knows and/or has treated, Dr. Angela Neal-Barnett exposes anxiety, panic and fear and gives advice on how treatment can turn a life around. Soothe Your Nerves contains self-assessments to recognize Obsessive Compulsive Disorders, examines the types of drugs commonly prescribed for treatment, and even takes the time to distinguish between psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors and lay personnel by degree and length of internship. She further lists websites and other helpful numbers for people seeking assistance with personal issues. I like the use of examples the best and while I don¿t think that we are actually searching for ourselves through the pages, the subjects Dr. Neal-Barnett chooses to highlight are wonderfully illustrated with people we might encounter in our lives. We might encounter ourselves. A strong proponent of ¿Sister Circles¿, there are even examples of charters and step-by-step instruction on starting a circle. I am especially pleased to see that faith is mentioned in the book. Oft times, as illustrated in the book, we are taught that if we pray more and seek to turn our lives more toward our Creator, all things will be solved. It is nice to be reassured that seeking professional help for a mental issue isn¿t turning away from our faith but rather allowing professionals to further enhance our faith walk. Dr. Neal-Barnett even mingles her Sister Circle concept in the church. Soothe Your Nerves has opened a door enabling more people to walk through, explore and accept. Simply by reading this book, a person is taking the first step to self-discovery and self help.
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Posted September 8, 2003
Dr. Angela Neal-Barnett practiced psychotherapy especially with black women who typically avoid such treatments because the community and family expect these super strong females to overcome their case of 'bad nerves'. Dr. Neal-Barnett contends that ¿bad nerves¿ is a euphemism for anxiety and a myriad of fears and phobias. She ties her anecdotal findings with religious beliefs so as to make the case that more black women need professional help. However, the image of superwoman and the lack of African-American female psychotherapists lead to the use of home remedies for such problems as obsessive-compulsive disorder, overeating and drug and alcohol abuse.<P> This book is written in such a manner as to encourage African-American females and others to seek professional help and where to go to find that assistance. Current medicines that are commonly prescribed at least in the white communities are also described. Though aimed at the black women, any person who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks will find this guide a solid first step. Dr. Neal-Barnett provides solace and assurance to overcome the fear of those first steps towards seeking help, something this reviewer first hand understands the difficulty due to the social stigmatism.<P> Harriet Klausner
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Posted January 12, 2014