Anxiety, Depression, Mental Illness Stigma, Wellness

Running Backs: Black Men Tackling Anxiety

If you’ve ever seen a football game on any level, there are common offensive plays, which are designed to gain yardage. For example, when a quarterback hikes the ball, he sometimes hands the ball off to the running back. The running back typically looks for a hole, which is created by the offensive line, to run through to gain positive yardage. In some instances, there are times when the running back can make it through the hole or bounce outside of the hole for huge gains, much to the dismay of the defense. And, in other instances, there are times in which the running back heads to the hole in the defense, yet it quickly closes; consequently, when the hole closes, the running back has a greater chance of being knocked back or losing yardage, being sandwiched in between defenders and his forward progress being stopped or being stopped or knocked down. There is also a greater opportunity for the running back to fall down and several defensive and offensive linemen to fall onto him, possibly causing injury.

Much like this analogy of sport, anxiety feels like running with a ball into a hole that quickly closes, with two or three 300-pound lineman falling on top of you. The physical symptoms of anxiety can be as severe as feeling like one is suffocating or an inability to breathe. Other physiological symptoms also include rapid heartbeat, sweating, dizziness and an inability to concentrate. Milder symptoms of anxiety include problems with sleeping, negative mood, and comorbid symptoms of depression, which are more common as 18% of the US population suffers from some form of anxiety. Of that 18%, the majority of those affected by anxiety are Black Men.

Black men are much more susceptible than their white counterparts to experience higher levels of anxiety because of sociopolitical and socioeconomic constructs, availability of resources and a lack of familial structure (Reitzel et al, 2017).  More than this, Black men have lower access to finding successful coping strategies for stress and oppression, including discriminatory practices by members of authority. Black men are consistently targeted, ostracized, criticized and publicly dehumanized. We are highly criminalized in situations where we are guilty until proven innocent. We are running backs who are stuck in an ever-closing defensive hole, often tackled and laid upon by six to seven 300-pound lineman. 

As a mental health practitioner and, in all transparency, a mental health client, I cannot count the number of running backs (I speak of this figuratively) that show up in the office. I, myself, have shown up in a therapist’s office with consistent weight on my shoulders, which showed up as symptoms of both acute and mild anxiety. Much like my clients, I have carried anxiety into my job, my interpersonal relationships and my familial relationships.  Sometimes anxiety shows up as an inability to concentrate on and complete on work projects…sometimes anxiety shows up in relationships where you are suspiciously going through your partner’s phone…sometimes anxiety shows as insomnia at 3AM. 

Through interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy with cultural specifications, therapists assist these running backs with changing their thought patterns, channeling emotions associated with belies, thus changing behaviors. One of the most profound homework exercises that I have prescribed to a client and received as a client was journaling the things that I am grateful for, for twenty-one days (the time it takes to essentially break or form a habit).  Therapeutic exercises that help increase vulnerability, increase awareness and change thought and behavioral patterns allow for running backs to shed some of the weight they carry and hit defensive holes more swiftly, sometimes breaking through those wholes to run freely towards the goal line. 


Written by Aaron Kimble, LPC Intern

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