8 Tips for Tackling Political Stress Now
Data says we're beyond frazzled; here's how to cope.
Posted Feb 22, 2017
Two interesting pieces of data have lent credence to what I have observed in my psychotherapy practice over the past couple of months: Americans are feeling extremely stressed, and they are reporting that a lot of it comes from a sense of anxiety about the current political climate. We also see that a significant chunk of Americans are feeling less productive at work right now due to what's happening politically.
One of the most common refrains is difficulty finding balance: people report wanting to be active and informed, but they also can feel demoralized the more they read and absorb the details of what is happening. Where should the line be drawn? What is the difference between avoidance and healthy distraction? How can you steer clear of burnout? Read on to better take care of yourself in this unique time.
1) Establish Boundaries. Drawing appropriate emotional boundaries is so important in so many facets of our lives, and we often talk about this in the context of our relationship with others. Now, however, a large part of the boundary-drawing we need to consider is with ourselves and our own behavior. Examine the effects that news saturation has on you: is there a point at which it makes you feel helpless? Are there times where it is not making you more enlightened, but more despairing? For some people, setting parameters about how much time they spend each day, total, reading or watching news stories is important. For others, it is limiting social media. Sometimes saying that you will only do it during certain times of day-- or more specifically, that you won't do it during other more relaxing times of day--- can be helpful. Perhaps you need to unfollow certain people from your social media feed, or prohibit yourself from engaging with people whom you know will just antagonize you. Finding a way to stay informed without wallowing is very important-- especially since the more that you wallow in it, the more you can become desensitized and feel helpless and resigned to a situation that you don't want to become resigned to.
2) Use specific, Measurable Actions. Goal-setting research shows us that finding concrete pathways to our goals makes us more hopeful, and more able to reach them. Plus, feeling like we are working toward a greater good, and actually progressing in marking things off of our checklist, can bring a much more powerful sense of autonomy than sitting around in a negative feedback loop of frustration that can easily segue into powerlessness. You can start very small and still feel a difference; a common example of this right now is the amount of people deciding to make a one-minute phone call to their representatives on a regular basis to have their voices heard. The more that your action is clearly correlated to an outcome that matters to you and reflects your values, the more hope you are likely to feel.
3) Seek Out Social Support. The research into the ways that good friendships can improve your health and enhance your well-being has long been impressive. Unfortunately, when you arguably can benefit from those friendships the most-- in times of stress-- it is sometimes hardest to make time for them. It could be that your friends are as stressed as you are, so no one is taking the initiative to plan something. It could be that spending time together feels frivolous, or the opposite-- you worry you will start getting even more stressed out if politics come up in conversation (even if you are on the same side.) It could be that you are feeling alone because your friends and family don't seem as stressed as you are, or they even disagree with your beliefs. Whatever the problem, it's important to remember that quality time with people we trust can be the cure. The feeling that you are part of a community and that everyone is in this together is an important one for healing.
4) Practice Mindfulness. I know, I know. You've long since heard about the benefits of meditation, but the last time you tried it, it just felt silly. Well, you don't have to light incense and start in with "ohms" in order to increase your sense of interaction with the moment-to-moment world. Try starting small. If you're eating a favorite food, take a deep breath and spend a moment noticing how it tastes, smells, and looks. If you're waiting in line somewhere, instead of reaching for your phone, take a moment to pay attention to the muscle groups in your body, and the relief of taking a nice good breath. If you're doing something where your mind normally wanders, like washing the dishes, make time slow down for a minute by gently letting your thoughts go and instead bringing yourself into the here and now with the the sensations of the hot sudsy water. It may sound like it is not worth it, but the more that you can attune to the here and now, the more grounded you will feel, and the less your thoughts will start to spiral out of control.
5) Don't Neglect Physical Self-Care. Let's say there are two wrestlers going against each other for the ultimate victory. Which one would you bet on-- the one who has been up all night, scrolling irritably through their social media feed, and who seems to be living on a diet of coffee and Doritos? And who has long since given up the activities that they used to enjoy? Or the one who is turning off their phone and getting adequate rest, and still bothering to go out to dinner, engage in the hobbies that bring them comfort, and laugh every once in a while? We know that not taking care of ourselves makes us weaker, and yet what I am hearing from many of my clients right now is that they feel too agitated to engage in the activities of daily life that bring them joy. Some even report feeling guilty doing things that they now view as "frivolous"-- watching movies, planning vacations, or seeing their friends for happy hour. There is no shame in self-care; on the contrary, it makes you stronger. And if you're looking to make changes in the world, then just like the wrestler, you'll be better able to do it if you've kept up with your physical and mental health needs.
6) Keep Routines Where Possible. Sometimes, it's the little things in life that make us feel the most grounded. The ritual of a Friday family movie night, the Monday morning coffee klatsch with our favorite coworker, even the simple act of a monthly pedicure or something as simple as making our bed. The more we let go of our daily routines, the less connected we'll feel to ourselves and the rituals that give our lives structure. Even if it feels like going through the motions, try to keep the outlines of your life intact. Just like after someone has suffered a trauma, it can sometimes bring relief, familiarity, and a sense of control to be able to maintain the little things, and it reminds you that some things in your life do not have to be disrupted no matter what is going on in the world.
7) Unplug When You Can. Making sure that you are not always tied to your devices can serve many purposes. For one, it helps you control the onslaught of news better: many people report that every time they go online or on social media, the more they at first feel bombarded and that they have to brace themselves. Additionally, the more you unplug, the more you can spend time looking at other things around you that can serve as a healthy distraction and cut the amount of time you spend feeling worse. Do you like to read romance novels? Are you a cyclist who hasn't bothered to ride in a while? Do you know that you feel better when tackling a home improvement project, a craft, or a couple of hours in the kitchen trying out a new recipe? Being in touch with hobbies, nature, or even immersing yourself in a good book or movie can be an escape that, instead of disconnecting you from the world at large, is rejuvenating and gives you the strength to face it.
8) Embrace Gratitude. I've argued it in this space many times before: making a simple practice of gratitude, whether writing letters to people who have meant something to us, keeping lists of something that you feel appreciation for at the end of each day, or even just regularly taking one minute to silently thank the universe for all that is good in your life, can bring noticeable improvement to your mood. Again, this is something that might get swept away when people feel frustrated and stressed by the state of their world. But there is always something to be grateful for, and the more you can find and acknowledge it even during a small part of your day, the better off you will be.