I AM: Telling Black Women’s Stories of Coping and Thriving with Anxiety

Founders of Not Your Ordinary Films (NYOF), Jessica Chaney and Amanda Willoughby are the creators behind “I AM”, a documentary that launched in October. “I AM” centers on Black women who live with anxiety, tells stories about coping and thriving with a disorder that is often overlooked and misdiagnosed in Black women. Films that center Black women are often void of Black women working behind the camera and on the scene to ensure the voices are protected and the stories are told with honesty and dignity. These two women are changing the industry by choosing a career in film that centers Black voices through a mirroring lens.

Chaney and Willoughby met as co-workers at a Memphis Public Library and found a kinship in their shared desire to make movies. Willoughby, a graduate of the Memphis College of Art and a filmmaker, is the producer and editor for the project. She says their goal is to normalize Black people in mass media and tell the stories that are typically on the margins.

“We don’t want to make stereotypical Black content. We just want to tell everyday stories, normal stories, and these characters happen to be Black. Whatever comes along with being Black is going to show up in this story somewhere, anyway, because it’s our reality.”

Amanda Willoughby, producer and editor, Not Your Ordinary Films

“I AM” shares the dangers that lurk behind the shadows of anxiety that can render Black women strangers to their own thoughts. The force of this mental health disorder unveils the stark reality of the pressures and unfulfilled desires that silence Black women and often leave them to face the world alone.

The film was born out of personal experience for Chaney, director of the project, who suffered for years with anxiety. After participating in a director’s program at the University of South California (USC), she realized that telling her own stories could be a way to help others.

“Even from the time I was little, I’ve just genuinely enjoyed listening to people. I think people don’t understand how much others just want to be heard.”

Being understood and validated was a personal struggle for Chaney who for a very long time felt invisible. Although she has come to terms with this reality as a Black woman, some incidents still trigger these feelings.

“The other day, I was in Fresh Market, and I was in the middle of the aisle. Now, I am a fuller-figured girl, and I am in the middle of the damn aisle, and this white man was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t even see you there!’ And I was like, ‘Sir, how did you not see ME and be bold enough to tell me?’”

Jessica Cheney, director, Not Your Ordinary Films

The women in the film are boldly telling their truths, unfiltered and uncensored. Like Chaney, they experienced exhaustion, frustration, depression, hurt and anger and realized they wanted more from life than these feelings that were holding them back.

Willoughby believes many aspects of Black women’s lives contribute to their anxiety, including racism, societal pressures and being expected to carry the burdens in all aspects of their lives. She says many Black women “Have the feeling that ‘if I do break, nobody is there to catch me, so I can’t be the one to break’.”

Chaney says that unlike other women, Black women are not allowed to have a full range of emotions. She wants this film to give Black women permission to feel joy.

Willoughby’s goal is for the film to resonate with Black women who want others to see their humanity.

“It comes back to people calling us intimidating, or I’ve heard aggressive, yet we’re always expected to be on top of things, and sometimes I am just winging it.”

Jackie, a participant in the documentary

They both acknowledge that Black women are often thrust into jobs and careers that can provide security for their families, sometimes forgoing their aspirations.

Chaney explains that becoming filmmakers has been a healing journey for them.

“Black women, we’re the doers and a lot of times, we don’t get the liberties to be the dreamers and the thinkers.”

She believes there is a huge pool of untapped talent among Black women who can be deterred by a lack of resources and guidance, which can lead to anxiety that shows up as irritability, anger and frustration.

Grae, a participant in the documentary

“As they grow as women and in their careers, they are unlearning behaviors embedded for generations, such as justifying wanting beautiful things, taking trips or changing careers.”

She believes that telling important stories from their perspective is a calling.

“It’s so important for us to be in this position where we are able to take ownership of these stories. This is where we feel most comfortable and where it feels like joy.”

Workplace Trauma: masking + anxiety + depression + PTSD

Black women's health

Masking is a mental health term that describes ways to hide, suppress or camouflage symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the workplace, it refers to fitting into the cultural environment to maintain your job and relationships without anyone knowing what is going on inside. For Black women, masking happens often, and long term, it can spike the stress hormone cortisol leading to mental and physical health issues.

“We’re so into mask-wearing that we don’t pay attention to what our internal sensor, our intuition, our common sense is telling us,” says Dr. Angela Neal-Barnett, director of the Program for Research on Anxiety Disorders in African Americans (PRADAA) at Kent State University in Ohio.

Neal-Barnett says dreading going into the workplace could indicate one is struggling with anxiety or depression. “If you’re out in the parking lot willing yourself to go into the building, okay, that’s a sign that something is wrong not only in the workplace, but you want to take stock of your anxiety, depression and PTSD.”

“Anxiety can show up as agitation, irritability, hostility and anger, which can feed into the ‘angry Black woman’ stereotypes we often try to avoid.”

Symptoms of anxiety disorders can present differently in Black women. “Anxiety can show up as agitation, irritability, hostility and anger, which can feed into the ‘angry Black woman’ stereotypes we often try to avoid,” says Dr. Shaakira Haywood Stewart, a psychologist in New York.

Seeing anger in Black women can illicit negative labels from others. “We’re quick to say, ‘she’s crazy,’ but not necessarily recognizing the number of boundaries that person has had crossed, and the resentment that can build up from years of neglect or emotional trauma,” says Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka, head of psychology at the University of the District of Columbia, hairstylist and founder of PsychoHairapy.

While many avoid being angry because of the stereotypes and labels, embracing that emotion can be a healthy choice. “Getting angry is better than internalizing it,” says Neal-Barnett. “Because what happens when you internalize it? It’s all your fault. But racism, which is what you’re experiencing, is not your fault.”

Another symptom is being in a perpetual state of fatigue. “Exhaustion can be a silent killer,” warns Haywood Stewart. “You’ll hear from patients, ‘I’m so tired,’ and they think it’s because of working a lot, but it can lead to hypertension, pre-diabetes and fibroids.” Haywood Stewart cautions against preoccupation with trauma, which can manifest through repetitive discussions about the traumatic events, persistent flashbacks and recurring dreams of the incidents. It is important to find an outlet and someone to talk to about the issues that are causing mental anguish.

“Getting angry is better than internalizing it.”

For many Black women, the initial person who notices something is wrong may be an unlikely source. “Probably the first person who’s going to tell you something is wrong is your hairdresser,” says Neal-Barnett. They often hear about the issues in-depth, and see you regularly enough to be aware of mental and physical changes. For this very reason, she has a licensed hair professional on her research team because she says they are vital in diagnosing mental health issues. “You may sit in the chair and hear, ‘Girl, what is going on?’ because our hair tells a story about what we are going through.”

At that point, Neal-Barnett emphasizes the importance of seeking mental health assistance, making an appointment with your physical doctor and seeking legal advice—which may be difficult for some as they worry about the stigma associated with complaining and their job security. “For many women, they feel if they are not working, then what happens to the family in terms of keeping a roof over people’s heads.” She recommends using accrued Personal Time Off (PTO) for self-care and talking to your doctor about whether using resources, such as the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), are options.

When asked if the workplace is safe for Black women, Haywood Stewart answered emphatically, “No, it’s not.”

The workplace can be a harmful environment, and it is easy for Black women to become complacent and accept marginalization when it has become commonplace. “Some of the things happening to us in the workplace are traumatic and harmful,” says Haywood Stewart. “We’ve become used to being harmed because it happens over and over again.”

When your symptoms begin affecting personal relationships outside of work, that’s a sign that you need to seek help. “When the people you love start avoiding your calls, you find friendships and romantic relationships deteriorating; it’s time to get help,” says Haywood Stewart.

Neal-Barnett highlights that although workplace-induced stress can feel isolating, talking to others about these experiences is important. “You are not alone, and you are not the only one.” She says that it happens every day in corporate America and academia, which has adopted a corporate model. She explains that Black women may need to venture outside of their comfort zones if they want to see changes in their lives. “I know it feels embarrassing, and you feel shame, but if you can set aside that feeling for one minute and tell someone else who is Black, you are going to find hope and a plan to move forward.”

Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka
head of psychology at the University of the District of Columbia, hairstylist and founder of PsychoHairapy
Dr. Shaakira Haywood Stewart
Dr. Angela Neal-Barnett
director of the Program for Research on Anxiety Disorders in African Americans (PRADAA) at Kent State University in Ohio

From within to without: how stress and trauma appear in our bodies

Black women's health

Chronic phycological stress can lead to trauma in the body, hair and skin. Black women report higher levels of psychological stress than white women due to their intersectionality between race and gender. In addition, they face unique social issues, such as discrimination, finances, safety and family, which are all considered top stressors for Black women according to the Qualitative Assessment of Gender- and Race-Related Stress Among Black Women.

The Body

Over an extended period, stress can limit the body’s ability to adapt, causing damage to the central nervous system, cognition and learning, immune system functions, cardiovascular and endocrine systems and the gastrointestinal tract. There are signs Black women should look for in their bodies if they are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety.

“Weight gain, skin breakouts, palpitations and breaking out in a sweat are pretty consistent signs among patients, especially women,” says Dr. Robin Moore, DO, a primary care physician in Houston specializing in women’s health.

Moore says that Black women have to do better about finding ways to minimize stress in their lives, including being more vocal about their needs and learning to set boundaries.

“We have to learn to say ‘no’ to things that don’t serve us.”

Workplace stress is a common complaint among Black women in her practice. “Black women especially have to wear many hats, they are overwhelmed and can never show weakness,” she says. “It can produce an unrealistic and unsustainable reality leading to burnout and anxiety.”

She adds that racism and discrimination in the workplace can affect physical health because it causes Black women to apply added pressure to be the best just to receive the same as others.

Moore says stress can lead to severe health issues like diabetes, heart disease, ulcers, stroke and inflammation. Thus, it is important Black women insist their doctors check their heart, thyroid, cortisol and blood sugar levels, iron and electrolytes.

The Skin

Stephanie Serlin recommends her clients wash their face 30-60 times per month. Serlin, an esthetician and owner of So Hum Skin in Houston, says that a good skincare routine is a relaxation tool that can relieve stress while also combatting breakouts.

“I believe in the phrase, ‘Black don’t crack,’ but when we are facing trauma, we need to do more than rely on our genes.”

Serlin says that congestion (pimples) can appear both underneath and above the skin’s surface, along with skin inflammation and puffy eyes resulting from anxiety disorders. The inflammation is caused by high cortisol levels—a sign of stress.

“A good skincare routine can be a way to decompress from the day, take a moment for yourself and relax.”

Getting a professional facial regularly with extractions and an enzyme peel can help get the skin back on track. If unable to visit an esthetician, home facials can be purchased and used with caution. “I am not big on suggesting home remedies because a lot of times when people want to pop their pimples, the pressure of their hands causes more damage to the skin.”

Steaming the face by placing it over a bucket of hot water and wrapping your face in a hot towel are ways to open the pores at home. Serlin also suggests Aztec Secret Indian Healing Clay to detoxify the skin and Jan Marini products for a regular skin regime. She says it’s crucial to spot-test new products on the hand before applying all over the face to ensure no allergic or adverse reaction.

The Hair

Hair loss, breakage, shedding, oily or flaky scalp, and brittle texture may be signs your hair is telling you that you are depressed, or your stress levels are too high. Tecovia LaShe’ sees it every day with clients who come into her shop for braids and other protective hairstyles. LaShe’, stylist and owner of Crowned by She’ Hair Salon in Houston, says that her clients are often unaware of their stress levels until they sit in her chair.

Hair damage as a result of anxiety and depression.
Photo courtesy of Crowned by Shé Hair Salon

“I spend a lot of time consulting with my clients about the symptoms of depression and anxiety showing up in their hair.”

“They are often surprised how their hair is communicating that something is wrong,” she says.

She says many of her clients can leave hair issues untreated for long periods because they focus on coping and surviving. “Clients confide in me about their life issues, including workplace trauma and how much pressure they face in difficult work environments.” She adds that protective styles that cover the damaged areas are popular because so many Black women are dealing with the same issues.

LaShe’ helps her clients customize healthy hair regiments that may include special shampoos, conditioners, masks and oils. She may also suggest clients look to meditation, exercise, a change in diet or seek help from a mental health professional when she learns their struggles with mental health are not being treated.

“I listen and empathize because I am a Black woman, and I know how difficult life can be for us,” she says. “My role is to help them leave the shop looking better and feeling better than when they arrived.”

Dr. Robin Moore, DO
Tecovia LaShe’
stylist and owner
Crowned by She’ Hair Salon
Stephanie Serlin
esthetician and owner
So Hum Skin