I talk to a lot of athletic trainers every week. Often, I see athletic trainers dealing with really tough situations that go on for months or years. To the outside world, they look amazingly capable, but privately they feel depleted by the enduring strain of having to cope well.
John Henry is a folktale from the late 1800s, who may or may not have been real. He was called a “steel-driving man” because he was so strong and fast. He competed against a steam-powered drill to prove he couldn’t be outdone. John Henry won the battle against the machine (in some versions of the story, he did it to protect the jobs of the men who were likely to be replaced by the machine.) But then he dropped dead of exhaustion.
Sherman James (1983, 1994) coined the term “John Henryism” based on his research with economically disadvantaged Black men in the rural South. According to him, John Henryism has three core characteristics:
- Vigorous mental and physical performance
- Dedicated to hard work
- Driven by a single-minded determination to succeed
While these traits are positive and adaptive, James hypothesized that prolonged, high-effort coping, especially when resources and opportunities are limited, can negatively impact health.
James developed a 12-item questionnaire to measure John Henryism which included items such as “When things don’t go the way I want, that just makes me work even harder,” and “It’s not always easy, but I usually find a way to do the things I really need to get done.”
According to studies, John Henryism correlates with “skin-deep” resilience: On the outside, people who score high on John Henryism display exemplary behavior; on the inside, they suffer physical and psychological blows.
For example, Brody et al. (2013) studied 489 Black adolescents from rural, working-poor families. The researchers found 11- to 13-year-olds with high economic stress and high teacher ratings of academic performance and social competence. Compared to peers, these kids had fewer adjustment problems but more wear-and-tear on their bodies (allostatic load) in terms of stress hormones, blood pressure, and BMI.
John Henryism has been studied in different populations and even different nationalities (e.g., Felix et al., 2019; Gupta, Bélanger, & Phillips, 2019; Mujahid, et al., 2017; Vargas et al. 2020). Different studies have found that the effects don’t just affect rural, poor, Black adults in the U.S.
When the stress is personal
Situations that require enduring, potentially expensive coping are sometimes more personal than systemic. Imagine being a single mom with an autistic kid, being in a long-hour job with an unreasonable boss, having a chronic illness, or having a family member struggling with addiction.
These situations or others that require prolonged, effortful coping don’t have simple answers. But acknowledging that coping well can be costly can be an important step toward minimizing the negative effects of John Henryism. Here are some further steps that might help:
1. Tell someone who cares
Maintaining an “everything’s fine” façade drains you and prevents people from offering comfort. Being vulnerable can be scary, but it leads to real connections. Sometimes it helps to talk to others in the same boat, like a support group. If you’re really distressed, you might want to talk to a therapist. It can feel good to have someone understand what you’re going through, even if the situation can’t change.
2. Treat yourself with compassion
All too often, we criticize ourselves, berate ourselves for our mistakes, and demand more of ourselves. That’s not kind or helpful. If you were a friend in your situation, what would you say? Be kind to yourself too.
3. Find ways to take a break
You need to recharge if you’re dealing with a long-term problem. Sometimes that means delegating some responsibilities or letting someone else handle it temporarily. It’s probably not going to happen exactly the way you want, but giving up some control could be worth it. It’s sometimes about creating opportunities for small pleasures to recharge. Calling a friend, eating lunch outside, taking a walk, using the nice shampoo… these won’t change your situation, but they can lift your spirits.