Never in my twenty-plus years in the field of mental health have I seen such fear and angst surrounding current political events than right now. Whether you are on the political right or left, the distress that many people are feeling is undeniable.
If you are suffering with high levels of political anxiety, here are some strategies that you can implement to help you cope:
Recognize that your feelings are not bad or wrong
For those who are paying attention to the dramatic changes in the political environment and direction of this country (and much of the world), a certain level of anxiety may be the new normal for now. The bottom line is that change and uncertainty are quite often triggers for anxiety.
Therefore, don’t buy into the messages that your feelings are wrong and that you should simply buck-up and get over it. Feeling bad about feeling bad serves only to make you feel much worse. See if you can more peacefully co-exist with your political anxiety. Judging, condemning, or fighting with them is like trying to extinguish a fire with gasoline.
Engage healthy coping skills and lifestyle practices
If you manage your stress levels and practice healthy lifestyle habits, then your baseline distress will likely be reduced. Basic coping strategies include:
- Getting adequate sleep
- Exercising consistently (does not have to be intense, just get out and move your body daily)
- Engaging in pleasurable activities
- Getting together with people you care about
- Having a reasonably nutritious diet
- Taking time for yourself daily to unwind (and perhaps even unplug)
Try some de-catastrophizing thoughts on for size
We, as a country and as a people, have been through incredibly tough and divisive times in the past. That is the price we pay for living in a democracy. We have, however, always bounced back stronger. If the best predictor of the future is the past—we will move forward from this stronger, even if it does not feel that way today.
Take breaks from politics
Although you may feel that paying constant attention to the twenty-four hour news cycle will somehow help you feel less political anxiety—it won’t. It only serves to increase your sense of anxiety and uncertainty.
Try an experiment: Go a few days with only checking the headlines once a day or less. Then take note of your political anxiety level. You will likely feel a reduction.
That is not to say that you should be uninformed or not pay attention. Just understand the difference between healthy attention and knocking your head against the wall, over and over, by over-saturation of the omnipresent news cycle.
Seek ways to get involved
Join or volunteer with local, state, or national groups that are aligned with your political values. Pitching in can help you feel more in control and connect you with like-minded people. If so inclined, run for something or support someone who is running.
Generate some compassion (even a grain of sands worth)
Without feeling like you need to change your own personal beliefs or values, see if you can feel even a shred of compassion for the concerns of people on the opposite side from your political beliefs. By seeing other people as fellow human beings with their own fears, pains, and challenges in life, perhaps your own inner contempt for them will lessen. When you are carrying less contempt and more compassion, even when you strongly disagree, you may find that your own sense of peace increases.
Remind yourself that the uncertainty will ease over time
For many, uncertainty is very scary. We are living in uncertain times. It is impossible to know the exact specifics of how past campaign promises will look when (or if) implemented.
As the weeks and months ahead unfold, specifics will continue to emerge. Whether you like those specifics or not, the uncertainty-induced distress will likely begin to ease.
When to seek professional help
If the level of political anxiety you are experiencing is interfering with your able to function adequately at home or work, you may want to seek help from your doctor or a psychotherapist.
But, I worry that decreasing my political anxiety will lead to complacency?
Some people have expressed the sentiment that feeling less anxious distress about current political events is a bad thing. They feel guilty if they don’t maintain a high level of political anxiety. They equate feeling less distressed with being less concerned about vulnerable people who they believe will be harmed in the current political climate. They equate feeling better with not caring or standing up for people or issues that seem to be critically important.
How accurate are these concerns?
Does accomplishing a goal only come from high levels of distress? Is it the most worried individuals who win the Nobel prizes, boxing matches, promotions, or romantic partners? Do prosecution and defense attorneys have to passionately despise their courtroom rivals and approach their cases with anxious dread in order to effectively make their case? When you have solved problems in your life or achieved victories in the past, was it due to chronic anxious rumination? Or, have you ever found that high levels of anxiety have actually interfered with succeeding at the task at hand?
It is vital in a democracy to be an informed citizen (not to be confused with obsessive news-checking) and to take part in the political process. Just remember, however, that you can do this while prioritizing your own well-being at the same time.
Eric Goodman, Ph.D.