by Mary Garwood Yancy, PHD
Photographs by Jessica Pages
Talk to most any mental health provider these last few months, and you’ll get an earful on the psychological impact of the 2016 election. For many, distress has been percolating since primary season, with its often surreal reality-TV atmosphere. We’ve seen politicians and media modeling the same behaviors we discourage in our toddlers — name-calling, mocking, boasting, lying. Many of us — myself included — binged on sensational news. No surprise that my clients came in stirred up about the latest election coverage. Some- times it provided a good laugh. Incredulous, a client might start with “Can you even f-ing believe what that guy said in last night’s debate?” or “What the hell was she thinking?” Or a curious client would ask what diagnosis could possibly explain a candidate’s behaviors. But more often, people found it disturbing, anxiety-provoking, even traumatic. And we couldn’t easily get away, because the 24/7 news cycle was saturated in election coverage.
It didn’t surprise me to read that over half of American adults carried significant stress from the election (according to a recent American Psychological Association survey). And party affiliation didn’t matter — stress findings were much the same whether Republican or Democrat. With the rulebook largely abandoned this election cycle, many were threatened by an atmosphere that seemed unpredictable and out of their control.
“What comes out in my office is a pretty good reflection of what’s going on around us.”
Clearly, we therapists grapple with our own election distress, personal and professional. In “normal” times, politics doesn’t take up much space in talk therapy, but politics-heavy sessions have us navigating new territory. I find myself trying to find footing in the balance between ethical and professional norms — to be fully receptive to clients whose beliefs differ from mine without imposing my personal views. With our political climate making big contributions to emotional and life problems, it’s also testing my notions of clinical neutrality.
What comes out in my office is a pretty good reflection of what’s going on around us. In the days post-election, I had clients who struggled to get out of bed and go to work. People reported feeling physically ill or numb, angry, having panic-like symptoms and catastrophic thoughts, no motivation. And I also saw those who seemed to take it in stride, or felt relatively hopeful. As the initial intensity subsides, fallout continues in different forms. This election has been personal, and I see people actively avoiding family or friends on the other political pole. Clients, more often women, continue to be triggered by disparaging election dialogue, and process painful memories of feeling belittled or harassed. Parents worry that their children see misogynistic behaviors modeled and normalized. And among my young adult clients, I’ve observed a troubling mix of anger and anxiety about their future, and the future of the environment.
Without a doubt, ideological topics are more likely to surface in my office, and colleagues report the same. The range is wide — immigration, abortion, LGBTQ rights, healthcare and climate change to name a few. This barrage of politically generated stressors has the effect of amping up the sympathetic nervous system, leaving us in a constant state of hypervigilance. It’s not only bad for our chemistry, it’s exhausting. Alienation, anger, worry and sadness are common fodder for talk therapy — what’s unusual is how much is traced to the political milieu. These situational, stress-induced symptoms mirror a diagnosis familiar in my eld, adjustment disorder. But instead of a “typical” adjustment disorder — often something personal like a romantic breakup, a big move or job loss — here it’s a more collective experience.
For therapist and client alike, recognizing this adjustment process as something like Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — can give us patience and under- standing with ourselves and those around us. One of my favorite prescriptions is a daily dose of the serenity prayer.
The good news is that this, too, shall pass, and in the meantime there are things you can do to feel better. For those feeling overwhelmed, here are some ideas to help you through the rough spots.
• Cut down on news media; experiment with a temporary limit, say 30 minutes a day. Fill that new-found time with creativity, exercise or nature. Walk the trail, visit the Castle Hill graffiti park, try a new recipe, journal, or try a meditation phone app like Headspace or Mindful.
• Be aware of how and where you’re talking politics, and our human tendency toward confirmation bias. One wise woman shared her method of discussing potentially divisive topics like healthcare by breaking them into smaller elements, where you’re more likely to find some commonality.
• Focus more on your immediate world and specific areas where you can make a difference. Consider advocating for an issue or joining a local group with opportunities for civic involvement.
• Take a daily dose of gratitude by shifting some of the negative attention to “catching the positive,” heightening your awareness of the things going right in our country and the world.
• Keep a healthy skepticism about what you hear and read by doing your own fact-checking. To stay informed, seek sources you consider relatively credible, and read more, watch less.
• Be curious about how different political views develop (consider “The Political Brain” by Drew Westen or “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” by Jonathan Haidt). With “ubiquitous nervousness,” as Buddhist author Pema Chodron describes, our natural inclination is to harden our opinions, make our world smaller and blame others. Resolution lies in staying open and vulnerable with our discomfort, keeping a flexible mind to develop a “compassionate confidence.”
Read more from the Community Issue | February 2017