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.
Eating your vegetables, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, drinking in moderation…all habits we know are good for our health but aren’t always easy to cultivate.
Meditation is another good-for-you practice whose benefits have been touted by neuroscientists and spiritual practitioners alike. But it’s hard to do and even harder to incorporate into a busy life.
Here are some suggestions for making meditation a habit.
1. Start slow.
Many of the mindfulness-based therapy protocols, such as MBSR, call for 45 minutes of daily practice. Transcendental Meditation (TM) requires its adherents to commit to 20 minutes twice a day. Those daunting time demands discourage many people from even getting started.
The good news is that practicing mindfulness meditation for as little as 8 hours can be beneficial, as Dr. Amishi Jha of the University of Miami found in a series of studies with a group of very time-crunched subjects: active-duty military personnel.
I recommend beginning with 5 minutes a day of a formal meditation exercise. If you can manage twice a day, better yet. Add in some informal mindfulness practice each day—such as brushing your teeth, showering, or washing the dishes with your full, focused attention—and you’ll be off to a good start.
2. Be consistent.
Try to practice every day. Knowing you only have to put in five minutes makes it more manageable. You don’t have to meditate at the same time every day but, as with any other habit, you might find it easier to remember to do if it’s part of your daily routine.
3. Let go of expectations.
Mindfulness means observing without judging. Forget about trying to “empty your mind” or achieve a state of calm. Many people give up on meditating because they find it hard not to think. In fact, “not thinking” is an impossible state of mind to achieve. With practice, however, you can learn not to let your thoughts intrude—to have them playing in the background like a TV with the volume turned low and not get caught up in the show.
Because the benefits of meditation—such as increased focus and decreased emotional reactivity—aren’t immediately apparent and take time to build, it’s especially hard to stick with it. But the research provides ample incentive to give it a try. And if you follow my advice, it may, with time, become an important part of your day.
One of the most frequent questions I hear from people considering CBT is: “Can you help me get rid of my anxiety?”
I wish I could answer with an unqualified “Yes!” But I’m a psychologist, not a purveyor of snake oil, and professional ethics require me to set reasonable expectations for treatment.
Wiping out anxiety completely isn’t a realistic therapeutic goal. It’s also not in anyone’s best interest to aim for total mental control. Like it or not, anxiety—whether a hard-wired physical response to an objective threat or the product of an over-active imagination—plays an important role in everyone’s emotional repertoire. So we all need to negotiate a peaceful coexistence with it.
A few weeks ago I had the chance to test out my own advice about meeting fears head on. I was at the highest point in LA’s Runyon Canyon enjoying the vista of the city spread out beneath me and the Hollywood sign in the distance on a perfect Southern California day. I sat on a rock soaking up the warmth of the sun and giving the experience my full, mindful attention. Then I started on the descent.
That’s when the panic gripped me.
Heights have always made me nervous, and I’ve never liked hiking downhill. But this time I wasn’t just cautiously inching my way down the slope in my typical fashion. I froze completely. My heart pounded. My mouth dried up. I felt dizzy. I couldn’t figure out how to put one foot in front of the other.
The steep dirt path littered with jagged rocks made my anxious brain conjure up images of slipping and plunging forward and cracking open my head and lying in a pool of blood. Not likely. But it could happen.
Oh, wait! It had happened —just a few months earlier, on a perfectly flat walk only two blocks from my house when I tripped on an uneven patch of sidewalk and landed in the emergency room.
OK, so my fears weren’t entirely irrational (an argument I hear frequently from people with anxiety reluctant to approach triggering situations). But, still, I had to make my way down the mountain.
So I decided to recruit the mindfulness skills I’d just been practicing. I didn’t try to relax. I didn’t tell myself I had nothing to worry about (because, really, how could I possibly reassure myself given the evidence to the contrary?). I didn’t try to push away the gory images. I didn’t attempt to slide down on my butt crab-style, a technique I’ve employed in the past to navigate precipices. I didn’t try to take a calming breath or grab onto my husband’s arm for support (not a viable option anyway because he was focused on his own worries about slipping and dropping his camera).
What did I do? I gave myself permission to be scared. I decided not to care about how slowly I was going and made room for the faster hikers to pass me. I looked down at the path in front of me. I concentrated on finding a place to plant my foot and took a step. Then another. And another. Until I finally reached the bottom.
And the next day, I went back and climbed to the top again. The view was breathtaking
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.