No matter your political stance, pro-Trump, anti-Trump, or Trump neutral, I think we can all agree that right now, people are stressed. And fearful. And angry. Tensions are running high. Since even before the 2016 election, clients were coming into counseling talking about their concerns related to politics. I continue to hear story after story about how it is affecting people and their relationships. I hear about families having blowout arguments, some even choosing to skip family events due to the likelihood for political debate. I hear about people being unable sleep, various groups being terrified of their rights being taken away, fears about the economy and jobs, fears of being physically harmed, and people just being fed up with discussing it.
One thing I talk with each of them about it, “How are you going to get through this?” How are you going to survive it without allowing it to tank your life and relationships? The tendency for us oftentimes is to hyperfocus on situations that are anxiety-provoking. We endlessly worry about what could potentially happen in the future. We assume everything is going to fall apart. So I began really thinking about what each of us can do to ensure we take care of ourselves no matter what is going on in Washington.
- Limit media exposure. This is my absolute, # 1 recommendation. If you find yourself ruminating about political matters and getting upset about it, take a break. You don’t have to watch the news every day. You don’t have to follow news pages and have every article they publish come up on your newsfeed. Nothing tragic will happen if you miss a tweet here or there. We were not built to deal with as much information as we have access to now. We were built to know and be concerned about what is happening in our home and in our village, not what is happening worldwide. So if you find yourself getting overwhelmed or distressed, take a break. Turn off the TV, unlike the news channel from your page, choose a different podcast or radio station. Refocus on your village and what is happening right now in the lives of those nearest to you.
- Do not catastrophize. “Catastrophizing” is a word therapists like to use to describe the human tendency to think of the worst case scenario, “If [whomever] gets elected then I’ll lose my healthcare coverage/the economy with collapse/the world will burst into flames.” You name it. We can come up with the absolute worst possibility. We’re wired to do that. It’s how we try to protect ourselves. Long ago, when we had to worry a lot more about, say, getting eaten by a bear, it would serve you well to be able to predict when danger was around the corner. But now that we don’t have to worry about that sort of thing as much, that superpower gets misdirected at situations that may be threatening in some way, but are typically not truly life-threatening. So take a step back, recognize if you’re going down the road of “what if?” and focus instead on what One could argue, “But this IS life threatening! There are attacks going on all over and people are dying!” That’s where #3 comes in.
- Separate helpful and unhelpful worry. With all the attacks in the news, it would be unreasonable for people not to worry. But there is worry that is helpful and worry that is not. Helpful worry are concerns that bring with it some sort of action. For instance, a mother worrying about bookcases falling onto her young child is actually helpful; it may lead her to anchor the shelves to the walls to prevent an accident. Worry about whether there will be a terrorist attack or shooting when you go to the mall later today, not so helpful, as there is little you can do about that particular worry. It has been said that anxiety/worry is your mind trying to answer an unanswerable question. Sort through your concerns by asking, “is this worry actionable in any way?” If not, observe the thought mindfully (without judgment, not trying to push it away, not holding onto it), and allow it to pass. Check in with your surroundings. Are you currently in danger? Is there an imminent threat to your life? If not, then your brain is sending out a false alarm of panic at a time when it is not going to be helpful to you. It is trying to get you to answer and unanswerable question: What if I am the victim of a violent attack/there is nuclear war/I lose my healthcare coverage?
- Focus on what you CAN do. Once you determine whether there is anything to be done about whatever you’re worrying about, consider doing it! Worrying about losing healthcare coverage? Figure out who to write or call and let your voice be heard. Concerned about how the current tensions about racism will impact your children? Do some research and figure out the best way to talk with them about it! Worried about that certain family member ruining the next gathering with political debate? See #5!
- Utilize enforceable boundaries. Disagreements about politics can get heated, exhausting and, hurtful. You may find that you need to set some boundaries with people in your life about political discussion. Clients will often come into my office and say, “Well, I set a boundary with my husband. I told him he cannot talk to me that way. But he just won’t respect it!” That’s because “you can’t talk to me that way” is not a boundary. I always say that short of using your adhesive of choice to seal the person’s mouth shut, there is no actual way to enforce how anyone speaks to you. What you can do is set enforceable boundaries. This is where you focus on what you will do in response to the other person. You can use the formula, “When you [fill in the blank with the specific behavior you will not tolerate], I will [fill in the action you are committed to doing in response]. So you might say to that belligerent friend or family member, “When you [call me or other people names/don’t stop talking politics when I ask you to/speak in a bigoted manner], I will [leave the room/hang up the phone/ask you to leave/put in earplugs].” This gives you control over the boundary and doesn’t leave you hoping they will respect it. It is best to be as clear as possible (for instance, I would clearly define what “bigoted manner” means to you in the example above) and set the expectation ahead of time. Don’t wait until you’re in the heat of an argument before setting the boundary. “Strike while the iron is cold” and let the person know what you will do ahead of time.
- Remain respectful. This may seem difficult – or downright impossible – but I really believe it is part of the key to holding on to your own inner peace. I get it, words like “libtard/conservatard”, “feminazi”, and “snowflake” start getting thrown around and it becomes very hard to be respectful. Do it anyway. Don’t get rattled. Refuse to allow current politics to push you back into an elementary-school mentality, full of name-calling and putdowns. You are in charge of how you behave, regardless of how people around you are choosing to behave. Continually show respect to others and you will be able to speak your piece and be proud of the way you did it.
- Get support. This stuff is difficult. It brings up many deep emotions for people and can trigger issues related to past trauma. If you find yourself struggling to get through your day-to-day life, can’t sleep, or you notice your relationships are suffering, reach out to a local mental health professional for support. They can help you effectively sort through what you’re feeling so you can continue living and enjoying your life.