Another day and, for many, another worrisome news alert out of Washington — or two, or three. Travel bans. Policy reversals. Wire taps.
In October, during the buildup to Election Day, we heard from therapists about how their patients were feeling fearful, angry and distrustful in reaction to the contentious presidential race. Now, these same therapists report that many of their patients are even more upset as they struggle to make sense of the direction in which the country is heading. And many can’t tear themselves away from the news.
“So much is coming at us,” said Sue Elias, a psychotherapist in New York City. “There’s a chronic sense of anxiety among my patients that I have never seen before.”
Indeed, Americans are reporting even higher levels of stress than they did before the election, according to a report from the American Psychological Association released in February. And like so many issues these days, the stress appears to be partisan.
The report, called Stress in America: Coping with Change, was based on a Harris Poll of more than 3,500 American adults in August, with a follow-up of more than 1,000 men and women in January. While 26 percent of Republicans polled after the election said the political climate was a source of stress, 72 percent of Democrats said they felt that way. The report also found that 86 percent of adults constantly or often check their email, texts and social media accounts, and that those who are constant checkers are more likely to experience stress.
The cycle of vigilance can be insidious. “The election results caused feelings of uncertainty,” which leads many people to check the news and search for information to help them cope, said Dr. Eric Hollander, a professor of psychiatry and the director of the Autism and Obsessive-Compulsive Spectrum program at Einstein — Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. If people see a tweet about wiretapping or deportations, for example, and try to look up news articles about it, what they find often “only heightens the worry and perpetuates the cycle,” he said.
“Many of my patients are frightened and on edge. They wonder, Could the next news alert report that missiles are flying through the air?” said Dr. Robert Bright, a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix. “Almost all my patients report having insomnia.” He tells clients who are feeling overwhelmed to turn off news alerts on their phones and instead tune into the news just once a day. If social media feels as if it’s making your blood pressure rise, limit the number of times per week you log on.
“A couple of patients told me they were incredibly stressed and embarrassed to tell friends they had voted for Trump, as they felt they would lose their friendship,” said Elaine Ducharme, a licensed clinical psychologist in Glastonbury, Conn. “The country was already divided, but the election has made it feel more so.”
She advises patients to talk to people on the other side of the political divide, in order to understand their point of view. She also reminds them that big changes will not happen instantly and counsels them to do something fun and engaging. “I’ve been playing Words With Friends online in French,” she says. “It’s been wonderful.”
Dr. Steven C. Hayes, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada in Reno, likewise advises reaching out to others on the opposing political side. “Have a conversation, not to convince, but to be curious,” he said. “Practicing empathy for different points of view can help you feel less distressed.” You might find that you have more in common than you imagined.
“I’m surrounded by Democrats,” said Abe McCallum, a software product architect in San Francisco who is a Trump supporter. “But I talk to them. I find that there is a lot of common ground between us. Talking things out lowers my stress level. If you just move across the aisle, it relieves a lot of pressure.”
Dr. Hayes agreed. “Use your anxiety to motivate you,” he said. “Think about what you value most and take action.” Taking action can help to instill the sense that you have some control over your environment — what psychologists call perceived self-efficacy — and leave you feeling less stressed.
Action might take the form of old-fashioned letter writing. Dan Shaw, a freelance writer based in Falls Village, Conn., sent a postcard to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. saying: “If we have a constitutional crisis, please protect our democracy and our freedom.” He also writes regularly to his senator.
Volunteering is another option. A study from BMJ Open that analyzed data from a large, longitudinal study in England found that those who volunteered their time scored higher on tests measuring mental health than those who did not; the results were particularly robust for those over 40. Even a “minimal amount of participation” in volunteer activities boosted mental well-being. The authors theorize that volunteering may provide people with a “sense of purpose” and help “maintain social networks.”
After the election, Robin Marshall, a brand strategist in Brooklyn, wanted to channel her “rage” productively. She and a few friends now organize fund-raisers at local restaurants for groups such as Planned Parenthood and the National Immigration Law Center. “In addition to raising money, the events bring members of the community together and provide others with a way to help, too,” says Ms. Marshall.
Identifying those issues that are most important to you, then connecting with watchdog organizations that can be vigilant on your behalf, is another way to keep the anxiety in check. If climate change is a top concern, for instance, periodically check in with an environment group like the Natural Resources Defense Council that follows that issue closely and offers tips about how to make your voice heard.
Laura Fishman, a speech pathologist in Westin, Fla., says she was never a “political person,” but after the election, she grieved for a few weeks, then joined the group South Florida Women Rise Up, a progressive political group focused on education and action, which meets the first Monday of the month. “When I attend these meetings I feel more hopeful,” she said.
For some, simply taking the time to be a better person is calming. “I consciously try to be nice to everyone,” says Leslie Koren, a content consultant in New York City. “Being polite and kind helps to counteract a lot of the feelings of helplessness and all the negativity in the air.”