Many of the people that I work with on a regular basis have been experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety related to the recent election results.
Unfortunately, mental health professionals are no better as news analysts than the so-called professionals. I have been struggling a little bit trying to figure out what to say to these people.
Coping with Political Uncertainty – Lessons from Natural Disasters
For those who are experiencing significant anxiety symptoms, perhaps related to their own past experiences of vulnerability, I have been encouraging a news holiday (much of what passes for news these days is nothing more than speculation and therefore likely, because of its uncertainty, to increase rather than decrease anxiety). This is much the same advice that I give to people with PTSD symptoms after a natural disaster.
That advice I believe is good but it seems inadequate…
So what I’ve been doing is collecting stories from the people I see to uncover patterns of healthy or unhealthy adaptation to the news and to the resultant uncertainty about the future.
Here are some of the themes that I have encountered.
Focus on Your Values
In the midst of a world of uncertainty, one of the most effective strategies is to focus on your values. Why should this be the case? If you find yourself out of touch with the values of those in power doesn’t focusing on those values make you feel more vulnerable? Researchers who have looked into this say that reminding yourself of those values and recommitting to living your life in accord with your values actually increases your sense of control. You can’t influence how others act but you can choose whether or not you act from your deepest felt values. The act of choosing to do so increases your sense of control over your life and reduces your sense of anxiety and depression.
Take Control – Be King of Your Castle
Taking the theme of focusing on what you can control further, this is a good time to examine the question of how effective you are being in managing your life. Be King of your castle.
One of the things that we know from working with people with chronic depression is that there is an insidious process that takes place as the result of depression that involves losing awareness of how one’s own statements and actions influence what happens to us. Over time we find ourselves feeling that people’s responses to us are things that we have no control over. We feel that way not because it’s true but because we begin to pay less attention to the ways we can influence or change the outcome of the conversation.
In our companion website, Gateway Psychiatric, we have written quite a bit about the Cognitive Behavioral Analysis System of Psychotherapy (CBASP). The whole purpose behind this approach to therapy for people with depression is a systematic focus on increasing awareness of how what we say to others and how we say it and how we interpret their responses to us matters in a profound way in terms of what happens in our life.
As natural as it might be to pull away from people, especially if they want to talk about the election (and you don’t want to) this is a good time to focus on strengthening your relationships with your best friends and closest family members. Connection and intimacy reminds us of what truly matters… but when you do get together try not to spend all your time rehashing politics. Talk about how you’re feeling and perhaps what you’re doing to cope with the events.
Throw Yourself Into Self Care
One of our patients took up running in a serious way right after the election. With so much anxious energy present in his body he thought that it might be a good way of getting stronger and taking care of himself while using up some of that anxious energy which otherwise would get in the way of deep sleep at night. This is an excellent time to throw yourself into self-care. Improve your diet. Begin a vigorous exercise regimen. Start regular short meditation or relaxation exercises. Instead of sleeping in get up early and get outdoors…
Direct Your Anger
Anger serves a very important purpose in motivating us to take action when action is needed, but as Freud knew quite well, anger without direction without some constructive purpose can easily be turned upon ourselves and lead to depression and hopelessness. Use that angry energy to take on one small project that is consistent with your values. One of our patients decided this past week to start volunteering in a woman’s shelter. There are many possibilities and this might be a good topic for one of those conversations with a close friend or family member.