As a cognitive-behavioral psychologist, I teach people how to handle distress by changing the thinking patterns and behaviors that negatively affect their emotional well-being. The inauguration of the new President has stirred up strong feelings for many on both sides. So it seems fitting to offer some coping advice for weathering this highly polarized and emotionally charged political climate.
First, I’d like to correct one misconception. Contrary to what many journalists reported during the campaign and following the election, I haven’t seen an uptick in referrals due to anxiety about the new administration. My practice is just as busy now as it’s always been, but no one has contacted me specifically because they can’t deal with the current state of affairs. To be sure, discussions about politics and heated emotional reactions have come up frequently during recent therapy sessions–I work in DC, after all, and see many lobbyists, lawyers, Hill staffers, and Federal employees from both ends of the political spectrum. But anxiety, for those who are prone to it, tends to attach itself to whatever happens to be in the headlines of the moment. Today it’s the roiling political climate; at other times it’s been Anthrax or West Nile Virus or bedbugs. The important point to remember, as I’ve noted before, is that the content of anxiety is irrelevant in learning how to manage it.
1. Practice selective avoidance
Although I don’t typically encourage avoidance as a way to reduce anxiety, I do advise managing triggers strategically. So if you know reading the Comments section of a blog post or news article will send your blood pressure through the roof, skip it. Likewise with Facebook and Twitter. You already know what the people you follow think, so you won’t be missing anything important.
2. Limit the time you spend reading the news
For any compulsive behavior–and checking the news for a media junkie can become as uncontrollable as washing for a germophobe–coming up with a reasonable schedule can help dampen the urge to check and keep your emotional reactions from coloring your entire day. If this is a problem for you, try limiting the number of sites you read to two or three major news outlets; don’t go on your phone the moment you wake up; decide only to look, say, after breakfast, lunch, and dinner– and never before bed.
3. Challenge your thoughts
A standard CBT technique is to identify cognitive distortions contributing to intense, negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, and depression. Two common distortions, labeling and overgeneralization, may lead to anger towards those whose political beliefs differ from our own. In a Pew Research Center Poll, Republicans attributed these qualities, ranked from highest to lowest, to Democrats: close-minded, immoral, lazy, dishonest, unintelligent. The view of Democrats towards Republicans differed only in the order of the ranking: close-minded, dishonest, immoral, unintelligent, lazy. Clearly, such sweeping generalizations and negative labels create acrimony and even hatred of The Other.
4. Practice mindfulness
Railing against what should or shouldn’t be happening can make a difficult situation unbearable. As a Buddhist saying goes, “If you get struck by an arrow, do you then shoot another arrow into yourself?” The Second Arrow–our reaction to a bad event–only adds suffering to the pain. We can cope more effectively if we adopt an attitude of acceptance. Keep in mind that acceptance doesn’t mean liking the status quo or giving up. It simply involves seeing things for how they are without judgement. Dialing down our emotional reactivity allows us then to make more clear-headed decisions about the course of action we want to take.
5. Cultivate compassion
Attempting to understand another’s point of view, even if you never arrive at any common ground, can help you feel less angry. Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild, a Progressive academic who couldn’t be more different from the residents of St. Charles, Louisiana, where she embedded herself during a 5-year study, scaled what she calls “the empathy wall” to understand the economic and social forces that led them to embrace the Tea Party. Over time she came to see them as people rather than stereotypes. They, in turn, came to accept her as a human being rather than dismissing her as a “West Coast liberal.” In the end, they developed a mutual respect for each other even though their political positions never changed.
Emotional resilience requires the ability to see moods as transient, like the weather. We can apply the same approach to preserving our sanity in today’s stormy political climate. Lay in ample reserves of acceptance, empathy, compassion. Take constructive action. Batten down the hatches. And wait for the hurricane to pass.
I’ve been extremely fortunate with my health. No major illnesses or injuries. I even walked away unscathed from a head-on collision with a drunk driver who plowed through a traffic light at the intersection where I was stopped, totaling my car.
So my accident a few days ago, which landed me in the emergency room and required extensive oral surgery, was a new experience for me.
I went out for my usual walk with my dog. Wearing headphones and listening to a podcast, I was “distracted walking.” My foot caught on a bump in the sidewalk. I fell forward, tried to brace my fall with my hands, and landed hard on my chin.
Let’s just say the damage, in the medical-speak of the ER, was “impressive,” the sort usually only seen in major automobile accidents, or among young men who’ve been in bar fights or crashed into trees while snowboarding.
My jaw is now wired shut to heal the fractures. I’ve heard from friends who are envious of the enforced opportunity to shed a few pounds on a liquid diet, or who’ve known of people who voluntary opted for jaw-wiring as part of a weight-loss plan. I am not amused.
Nevertheless, I’m trying to make the best of a bad situation. While waiting for hours in the ER, I researched expensive Vitamix blenders,which I’d been eyeing for awhile but felt were too extravagent, and treated myself to one (with a single click on amazon). I’m using up my CSA produce in kale smoothies and creamed vegetable soups. I’ve been catching up on emails and on the latest novel I’ve been trying to get through for weeks. I’m writing a long-overdue blog post.
And, to my surprise, I’m even feeling a little grateful. While I was undergoing a CT scan of my skull, a worried thought of the kind health-anxious folks are frequently plagued with popped into my head: “What if this is one of those situations you hear about, where someone goes into the hospital for one thing and finds out they have something else much more serious? What if I have a brain tumor?”
Thankfully, I don’t. I’m just facing a somewhat arduous process of recovery. But I will heal over time.
I think I’m practicing acceptance. It’s not a situation I like. I’m not a good patient. I want to be in control.
But it is what it is. So rather than wallowing, I’m trying to treat myself kindly (when I’m not berating myself for my carelessness), connect with friends over email, arrange milkshake dates for when I can be seen in public, allow my husband to run around doing errands for me, and experiment with new soup recipes.
Mindfulness practitioners tell us you can accept something without being happy about it. If there’s a secret to getting through life’s ups and downs in the best way possible, I think cultivating an attitude of acceptance (which isn’t the same as resignation) is key.
We’ll see. I’m working on it.
This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.