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Staying Grounded in Times of Societal Turbulence

How do we remain caring and productive in an era of national distress?

Key points

  • The U.S. faces an increasingly charged sociopolitical atmosphere at a time of constant digital and offline stimulation.
  • Mental health professionals are tasked with managing declining mental health while also experiencing the events of broader society.
  • We can take several practical steps to manage our well-being, which is essential to remaining effective and caring.

This post is authored by Mariam Shalaby, a 4th-year medical student at Penn State College of Medicine

It is a tumultuous time in the U.S.—politically and socially—and many of us in the field of mental health are additionally tasked with the responsibility of caring for the emotional needs of others. This can be taxing, even for someone like myself who is a medical student training in psychiatry. What are practical steps we can take to maintain a productive and caring presence amidst national turmoil?

A day in the life of a mental health trainee

As a fourth-year medical student, I spend a month at a time training in different locations. Recently, I have been training at the local psychiatric hospital, where patients are cared for when their mental illness leads them to be at risk of harm to themselves and/or others, or unable to care for themselves.

Waking up on a recent Wednesday morning, the first thing did was check my phone. Texts from loved ones working through personal problems flooded my screen. I sent a quick reply — “Thinking of you” — before switching apps to scroll through cute cat videos interspersed with passionate 30-second video clips about baby formula shortages and another school shooting. I clicked my phone screen off before taking a deep breath and getting ready for the day.

Driving to the hospital, I noticed the fluffy clouds and the blue sky above me. It was a pretty June day—a peaceful morning. Merging onto the highway, I noticed the car in front of me. Pink paint emblazoned on its trunk exclaimed: “PAWS OFF ABORTION! STOP CONTROLLING WOMEN.” My chest tightened.

I walked into the hospital and sat down for rounds, which is when the team meets with every patient to talk about how they’ve been and discuss their treatment plan. We interviewed eight patients in a row. When I asked one patient what led her to attempt suicide, she looked at me in the eye and said, matter-of-factly, “I was sexually abused by my father as a child, I have struggled with cocaine use for many years, and I am dealing with unresolved grief from the loss of my husband due to overdose.” I gulped, and said, “I’m so sorry to hear that.” Inside, I panicked: What is going on, and how are we going to fix it?

Finally, we finished rounds. I took a break for lunch at the neighborhood Italian bakery and noticed an enormous plywood sign in front of one of the houses across the street: “FROM IRELAND TO PALESTINE, OCCUPATION IS A CRIME” it screamed at me in black spray paint. I took a deep breath and tried to notice the taste of my pizza and the sound of the birds. The time passed too quickly, and soon it was time to return to work.

When I finally arrived home at the end of the day, I felt drained. I had little energy to do anything at all. And it was only four o’clock; I had gotten home early. I resorted to looking at my phone, and found myself once again watching silly videos that left me feeling just as tired as when I got home.

Taking stock

I’m grateful that, like many other professional Americans, my basic needs for food, water, and safety are met. And I’m grateful to serve in a role that helps others find stability in their lives. But these days, a sense of vigilance and worry often consumes me. Many of us wake up daily to an overstimulating digital atmosphere, a turbulent sociopolitical landscape, and an emotionally taxing job. I walked through the day on edge, alert for threat.

While there are practical ways of responding to outside threats to our senses of security and calm, such as participating in activism about causes we care about and doing our best to care for patients, addressing inner sensations of stress in response to those threats isn’t always so clear. Simply telling myself to “calm down” doesn’t work. Trust me, I’ve tried. That said, here are a few things that I have found to be helpful:

  • Attending to basic needs. For those who have access to nutritious food and opportunities to exercise, this should be a priority. Good food and regular exercise keep our minds and bodies refreshed, alert, happy, and healthy.
  • Connecting with the community. In an age when U.S. surgeon generals have declared loneliness to be an American epidemic, it’s important to remain connected with our loved ones.
  • Debriefing with those who understand. Colleagues are a great resource for support about experiences we have at work, which are often unique to the field. Debriefing with colleagues who understand can help us feel heard, understood, and less personally burdened and alone.
  • Doing things that make us happy. Cooking, playing games or sports, or having fun isn’t frivolous. Rather, these activities are necessary for our ability to perform well in our many roles as professionals, community members, and individuals.
  • Remembering the bigger picture. People have diverse ways of understanding their place, purpose, and spiritual significance. Personally, I find prayer and time in nature comforting.

Looking forward

The day after my introspective Wednesday morning, my classmate invited to me to play tennis with her at the park after our day at the hospital. Breathing in the evening air and the smell of the grass and trees, a sense of calm washed over me. As we whacked the ball back-and-forth and yelled across the court about our days, I felt instantly happier. I was sweaty and warm from the exercise, glad to be discussing my day with a colleague who understood, and amazed at the beautiful sunset. That single hour made a major difference in my mood and my ability to start my next work day refreshed.

When incorporating these activities into my routine, I have found it easier to be present with the issues that are within my control. I have found myself more able to use enough energy to be effective in my profession and community, but not feel so drained that I am overwhelmed and unproductive.

With more balance and control over our inner lives, perhaps we can better contribute to the improvement of a world that often feels out of control.

More from Daniel R. George, Ph.D., M.Sc.
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