From the Black Women’s Health Imperative

It’s no surprise that the big and little stresses of life can have a significant impact on your overall health and well-being — no matter who you are. But for Black women, stress and its health effects can be amplified.

While all women face stressors, “the inequities in the impact of stress on the health and well-being of Black women cannot be ignored,” says Linda Goler Blount, president of the Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI). The lived experiences of Black women speak to the overwhelming stress in their lives.”


The COVID-19 pandemic encapsulated and exacerbated the historical and systemic stress Black women have experienced and continue to experience.

In a 2022 study, researchers reviewed and analyzed the lived experiences of 72 Black women during the pandemic. The women shared their stories via the University of Connecticut’s Pandemic Journaling Program.

In reviewing the women’s stories, the researchers identified a few patterns. The women typically:

  • held “essential employee” positions
  • juggled being caregivers to multiple generations within their family structure
  • felt that connectedness to their support networks weakened, or was even eliminated, due to pandemic protocols like physical distancing

These situations and others caused the women overwhelming psychosocial stress.

You may say to yourself that everyone experienced challenges during the pandemic — and they did. But for Black women, the pandemic compounded existing feelings of chronic stress caused by lived experiences.

Maternal mortality

Blount also points to high stress levels as a possible reason for higher maternal mortality rates in Black women.

In 2018, the Center for American Progress published a report that focused on the disparities Black women face during pregnancy and childbirth. It highlighted research findings indicating that stress related to racism and gender discrimination plays a significant role in maternal mortality outcomes.

In addition, according to the Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance, stress caused by systemic and interpersonal racism can increase the risk of maternal mental health conditions in Black women.

Though there’s more research into the disparities that Black women face — especially in pregnancy and childbirth — in recent years, there are still critical information gaps.

“There simply isn’t enough research on the true physical and mental impacts of stress on Black women across the entire life cycle,” Blount says.

BWHI is working to further understand these impacts, collecting the responses of 60,000 Black women ages 21–69 and publishing them in a 2019 report, IndexUS: What Healthy Black Women Can Teach Us About Health.

Weight of the workplace

For most people, a day at the office means fulfilling their work responsibilities, taking breaks like having lunch, and heading home at the end of the day.

For Black women, it’s regularly a much different experience. It’s typically a day filled with challenges that take a toll on their well-being.

Their workday is more likely to involve microaggressions, being made to feel that they don’t measure up to their colleagues, and feeling that they need to consistently overachieve to be seen, heard, or simply maintain employment.

According to Dr. Jameta N. Barlow, director of undergraduate studies and assistant professor of writing, health policy, and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at George Washington University, “Stress in the workplace for Black women decreased with remote work as an option.

“Many Black women are experiencing less stress and trauma from the workplace (micro)aggressive behaviors that have been increasing with the changing socio-political landscape.”

There are no criteria like limitations or boundaries for where these moments and events take place. They’re happening in Hollywood, the sports world, local businesses in your community, and academia.

We recently witnessed the struggles Black women face in academia through what Dr. Claudine Gay and Dr. Antoinette “Bonnie” Candia-Bailey faced. And tragically, it became too much for Candia-Bailey, who died by suicide.

The doorway to hope opened slightly when many businesses embraced diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs following the murder of George Floyd.

But recently, we’ve seen that door closing at many businesses, and in some instances, it’s like an invisible deadbolt lock was added to keep the idea of DEI securely locked away.

Are you in crisis or considering suicide?

If you or someone you know is considering suicide or self-harm, help is available right now. You can:

Not in the United States? You can find a helpline in your country with Befrienders Worldwide.

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In talking about the stressful and traumatic experiences of Black women, we would not do justice to the conversation without talking about the added challenges they face in coping with those experiences.

It’s a coping process that also includes the added pressure of an increased risk of worsening mental and physical health conditions and potentially receiving new diagnoses.

A 2010 study found that Black women may process and internalize stress differently than white women. The research findings suggest that stressors may be responsible for increased biological aging in Black women, a process known as weathering.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black women have a life expectancy that is, on average, 3 years shorter than that of white women, and some of the root causes may be related to stress.

“We know that 1 out of 2 Black women suffers from some type of heart disease, per the American Heart Association (AHA) — much caused by stress related to race, gender, or income,” Blount says. “Stress is killing us.”

From a mental health perspective, research shows that stress can lead to increased diagnoses of anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Humans naturally produce a stress hormone called cortisol, the same hormone that causes the fight-or-flight response we feel when reacting in the moment to danger.

But the stress that causes the most negative effect on Black women is chronic, or ongoing, stress. As a result, Black women’s bodies may produce more cortisol continually over time.

Research from 2022 vividly describes the causes and effects of the adverse relationship Black women involuntarily have with stress.

What the Research Says

According to the research mentioned above: “Studies have observed that Black women may be excessively burdened by physiological impacts of chronic stress caused by health disparities associated with chronic stressors, including perceived discrimination, neighborhood stress, daily stress, family stress, acculturative stress, environmental stress, and maternal stress.

“They are likely to suffer the twofold consequences of social stress resulting from the interaction between racial and gender discrimination compounded by health and socioeconomic disparity. This may ultimately contribute to an increase in disease manifestation.”

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The compounding effects of stressful events further escalate cortisol production.

Long-term exposure to elevated cortisol levels can increase Black women’s risk of:

For Black women already living with chronic health conditions, stress can worsen those conditions. And when stress is not managed well, its effects on the body increase.

Black women are 50% more likely to receive a high blood pressure diagnosis than white women.

“Black women die from strokes due to high blood pressure at higher rates than white women. And we know there are strong links between stress and high blood pressure,” Blount says.

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It’s impossible to completely prevent stress.

Juggling bills and income, family relationships, and employers and co-workers can all be stress-inducing for Black women.

The news and social media also bring stress and feelings of anxiety right into our homes.

But there are steps Black women can take to reduce daily stress and create a coping process that works well for them.

Black women making self-care a priority isn’t selfish — it’s necessary and can be lifesaving.

A good first step can be checking their stress level, which they can do with the BWHI stress test.

Next, they can consider these supportive processes to nurture their overall well-being:

Barlow reminds us of the importance of allies in Black women’s support networks. She states, “Others can support Black women by being true allies and understanding that Black women’s allostatic load is high when subjected to increased and ongoing stressors.”

If you’re an ally to Black women — or would like to be — consider the following steps to help support them:

  • Be an active listener. Learn how to listen to learn rather than only listening to respond.
  • Commit to not dismissing their concerns and their contributions.
  • Create safe spaces where they can feel seen, heard, and supported.
  • Develop equitable and inclusive hiring, recognition, and promotion criteria.

The Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI) is the first nonprofit organization founded by Black women to protect and advance the health and well-being of Black women and girls. Learn more about BWHI by going to