Tension is at an all-time high in D.C's black community, local experts say. Stress-related illnesses, such as heart disease and hypertension, are among the city's leading killers, and the causes are evident.

Overworked or out of work, homeless or struggling to keep one together, many blacks find themselves battered by racism, the cost of living, poor education and social isolation.

Pressure is most intense among young black males from 16 to 25 years old. Unemployment for the age group hovers at nearly 50 percent.

John David Thomas of the LeDroit Park-Shaw area of Northwest Washington near Howard University is only 19 years old, but he suffers from constant headaches.

As he talks, little veins in his neck and forehead start to swell and throb.

The oldest of a widow's five children, he cannot find a job.

Except for a short stint at McDonald's three years ago, he has been out of work and out of luck ever since. For one thing, J.D., as he is called by his friends, cannot read. He is as crucially aware of his handicap in the job market as he is of his mother's need for him to help out.

Even on a chilly spring day, tiny drops of sweat dot his face. He says he has chest pains "at least" once a day, and can't sleep for more than two or three hours a night.

On a street corner near Howard, J. D. is dribbling a basketball, staring aimlessly into space.

"I would," he says, "do just about anything to pick up some change. Sometimes" -- he looks away now, but the basketball keeps rythmically slapping the pavement -- "I have done some things for money that I am ashamed to tell another person about.

"I know that I have to get a job. It's the first and last thing I think of every day. My mother always asks me, 'Did you find anything? I'm not sure she knows how hard it is, and I don't want to tell her. I feel like I'm nothing for my sisters to look up to, either. Like a disgrace, you know? iLike a worthless disgrace."

The loss of a feeling of self-esteem, particularly because of lack of work, is a major cause of stress among black men, explains Dr. Reginald Locke, a counselor at Howard University where a great deal of the academic and clinical research concerning blacks and stress is done. He conducts workshops on ways to identify and cope with stress on a daily bases.

"Work is a vital part of life," Locke says. "It gives people the feeling of being worthwhile. A denial of work, then, diminishes a person's sense of worth, and he loses respect for himself and others. And a person who has been denied the opportuinity to work is a person under stress."

Manifestations vary, he adds. An individual may become hostile and bitter, and engage in criminal acts or abusive behavior in interpersonal relationships. aLocke listed other evidence of increased tension in the black community:

Increasing drug and alcohol abuse.

A higher rate of suicide, particularly among black teen-aged males.

Increaseing mental illness among blacks.

The high pregnancy rate for black teen-aged girls.

Additional sources are inadequate housing, the constant threat of displacement and what Locke calls a "sense of insecurity in the environment."

"Look at crime in the street. More crimes are perpetated against the poor than anyone else," he said. "There are people who feel as though they are in constant danger, and I would say that this is a valid fear. It's not just a fear among people in the lower income brackets, but the major difference is that the upper classes have better police protection and are more likely to have their rights observed."

Some blacks are victims of what Locke calls "institutional stress," a type created by white society's traditional exclusion of blacks from many of its institutions and opportunities.

Other stress, in interpersonal relationships, social situations and the workplace, can often be the result of insitutional stress, Locke pointed out.

Dr. Frances C. Welsing, a D.C. psychiatrist, believes that blacks are special targets for the pressures of life in a high-intensity environment like Washington, because they also have to cope with racism every day.

It is this added factor, she says, that accounts directly or indirectly for most of the stresses blacks face.

"When you talk about stress and black people, racism is the number one critical factor that you need to be aware of . . . When money is tight and jobs are few, it is the nonwhite people who must bear the brunt of the added pressures which that causes. Everytime a black person shoots another black, or robs him or abuses his child, that's stress . . ."

For thousands upon thousands, it is a way of life.

Former teacher Margaret Courtney says her life, like many other blacks in the city, was permanently altered by the riots of 1968.

It was the summer of her late husband John Henry's stroke as the rioting raged near their 11th and D streets NE home.

Caught in a tangled web of personal tragedies including the loss of her husband, her own declining health and strained relations with her two adult stepchildren. Courtney lives today in virtual isolation and constant depression in her Upper Northwest home.

At 61, she is still a slight woman, perhaps five feet tall, with delicate bone structure. She looks at times as if the sheer weight of her story will crush her, but sits up straight in her chair, smoothes her handkerchief and goes on.

She sleeps two or three yours a night when she is lucky, she says, and sometimes, she confides with a bit of embarrassment, "I don't sleep for two nights straight . . . I don't know why. And I eat, too," she adds sadly.

"Before all of this, I didn't weigh 105 pounds soaking wet. But I got so depressed, so miserable, that I got into the habit of just snacking.

"If I'm up at night, I'll just go to the refrigerator. . . . I'll hate myself for it. I had such a beautiful figure, and now there's almost nothing that I can wear."

She describes herself as the type who keeps her feelings bottled up inside.

"I'm not very demonstrative, but I weep silently."

Her stepchildren share her home -- buying most of their meals from fastfood restaurants and eating in their rooms barely speaking to her, paying none of the household expenses and leaving her to spend endless hours wondering what went wrong.

Once a gregarious and popular woman, who holds a master's degree in elementary psychology and has studied at Harvard, she now spends her days along, in silence, stripped of the self-confidence she needs to venture outside the confines of her immaculate home.

"If it weren't for the Lord's help, I know I'd want to join my husband," she says. "I pray to hold on to the little bit of sanity that I have left."

One D.C. doctor describes Courtney's situation as a good example of how family problems and tensions can be primary stress-causing factors even without more typical problems, such as poor housing or poverty.

For others, stress is an everyday component of a life style many others believe is carefree.

Robert Gordon, whose name is on the door of Navy Marshall and Gordon architects, is the firm's senior vice president, and a self-described workaholic.

Tall and heavyset, Gordon moves through the firm's swank M Street office suite like a lone railroad car chugging uphill. At 9 p.m., he's already fighting the two main causes of his tension -- the clock and the calendar.

"Deadlines," he partically whispers, shaking his head and lowering himself into a conference-room chair. "In architecture, the work is stressful anyway, but the worst thing is the deadlines. Evertyhing depends of them, you know. Costs, losses, profits . . .

"We try to do things in the order that they're due. . . . Right now, we have four high-priorty projects going simultaneously. Real pressure cookers.

On is a joint venture on the Holiday Inn under construction in Southwest D.C. The project is a professional plum for the firm but, Gordon says, it points up one of the real problems black architectural firms face.

They frequently do not get the big jobs all to themselves. Either they do not have the connections that would make it possible, or they are held back by racism.

"The fact that you still have to put up with racism definitely is an added stress," he said. "The things you encounter run the whole gamut -- from the most obvious incidents to more vague things -- like not being able to break into certain area. The Holiday Inn is a good example. Many white firms could and would have had the necessary inroads to do it alone. Sometimes, we don't. And trying to make those inraods is an added stress."

He sleeps somewhere around five hours a night. The day before he was interviewed, he left the office at "about 12:30." He had arrived at 8:30 that morning -- the first one through the door -- "but that's normal for me."

His workday is a whirl of marathon business meetings, conferences, luncheons, site visits and paper work. Gordon says that he is at the office "way beyond" eight hours a day. He is there on weekends -- both days -- "and I have spent the night here from time to time."

He is overweight and has high blood pressure.

No one has a general formula for coping with stress and tension. People should take a serious look at their lives, Howard's Reginald Locke says, and determine what areas create problems for them.

"Then you consider your alterntives -- and everyone has some alternatives -- weigh the risk involved in each and make a decision as to which one to take."

Most blacks recognize stress as a problem, he said, although many do not realize that there are also physical symptons of pressure, including skin rashes, upset stomach, headaches and, in some cases, the common cold.

"The majority of black people know that they can do something about the pressure under which they live," he said, "but they view what they can do as being very limited within the confines of this society."