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Has Our Acute American Anxiety Turned Into Despondency?

Learned helplessness is a likely reaction to extreme stress over time.

A recent New Yorker cartoon shows a couple watching television news while the anchor states, "Everything is horrible—worse than we ever imagined—and there’s not a damn thing we can do about any of it. But whatever happens, we can’t give in to despair." As true for so many fine New Yorker cartoons over many years, there is always a great deal of truth, as well as poignant social commentary, in every jest.

used with permission from Blue Diamond Gallery
Source: used with permission from Blue Diamond Gallery

Much has been written and documented about the extremely high levels of stress experienced by Americans. The American Psychological Association’s yearly Stress in America study found that stress levels have never been higher, with most people pointing to the state of our national politics being the cause of their stress; it ranked higher than personal work and family troubles. Extreme divisiveness, incivility, verbal aggression, and so forth seem to get worse by the day. Worries about the future of our nation and society is on the minds of all. While anxiety and stress is commonplace, perhaps despondency is now setting in. Certainly my colleagues, clinical patients, and even strangers striking up conversations in the community have spoken about their fears and anxieties turning into numbness, depression, and despair. This is expected given psychological research on learned helplessness among other related topics. Learned helplessness theory and research by the well-known University of Pennsylvania psychologist, Martin Seligman, states that when efforts to improve stress are not reinforced or rewarded over time one simply gives up. This is a dangerous condition in that efforts to improve one’s life and community stops and people will accept whatever occurs to them without question or pushing back.

All indicators seem to suggest that we live in very challenging times regardless of one’s political persuasions and perspectives. Anxiety and depression seems to be commonplace now. And with suicide rates and addictive disorders dramatically increasing it appears that, as a society, we aren't coping very well with our current stress. It is important to be mindful of the dangers of learned helplessness setting in and to do whatever one can to push back, actively manage anxiety and depression, and do whatever is possible to help create a better community for oneself and for others. This is certainly not easy to do but still necessary.

A few pointers that may be helpful include the following:

  1. Connect with others of like mind and do something, anything, for positive change.
  2. Embrace the notion that you can work to change what you can control and accept what you just can't control. This is the theme of the well known and often quoted serenity prayer.
  3. Reflect upon and evaluate your own values and ethical principles carefully and be sure to express them in civil ways to others.
  4. Minimize media exposure and inflammatory news that tends to escalate problems and worries.
  5. Be sure to spend time in relaxing activities such as being in nature, getting away from computer and smart phone screens, and engaging in healthy activities such as exercise and spending time with friends.
  6. Engage in satisfying service and volunteer activities where you feel that you might be able to make a difference in the lives of others.
  7. If you are spiritually or religiously engaged, increase your involvement with your spiritual/religious tradition and community.
  8. Get professional help if your stress doesn't get better. You can start with the Help Center at the American Psychological Association if you aren't sure what direction to go to get assistance.

So, what do you think? What can you do to cope?

Copyright 2018, Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP