Self-Care in Turbulent Times

by Brandy Parris

In the current political climate, many of us find ourselves switching between wanting to know everything that is going on and desiring nothing more than tuning out all political news and conversation.  While there are multiple factors that can contribute to such mixed feelings, we can point to few elements.

First, as social beings, we are all susceptible to anything that hints at or announces expulsion from a community, also referred to as “belonging threats.”  A broad range of groups have been targeted by the current administration — women, Muslims, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, immigrants, disabled people; none are welcomed in the new version of America, and many feel their rights and safety are threatened.  Disenfranchised groups are suffering more.  Some are fighting with conservative family members, others are facing increased hate in the streets, most are consuming news about such threats.

In addition, the new administration’s rhetoric, with its “alternative facts,” and the preponderance of fake news have the same effect as gaslighting, a device of psychological control common in abusive relationships.  Gaslighting involves manipulation to induce heightened doubt in the victim.  Creating multiple untruths and promoting them as true causes people to question their own sense of reality.  Adding to that fear and confusion, the rapid and dramatic changes being implemented may create a frantic desire to track every new dictum, appointment, or tweet.

Fear of the unknown and a sense of overwhelm can result in heightened anxiety while feelings of powerlessness and worthlessness can lead to depression.  No matter how much or little you may be struggling yourself, you can counter these effects by experimenting with some of the following recommendations.

1)  Limit your consumption of media.  This might mean limiting your news to one or two trusted sources, limiting the amount of time you spend reading the news each day, or some mixture of these.  It might also entail reading only two or three political articles a day and following that up with a palate-cleanser of something more uplifting, such as the features offered on this site — https://www.positive.news/

2)  Limit your social media activity.  While social media can provide a way to connect with others, it can also be a source of intense frustration, fruitless conversations, and fake news.  If you find your interactions with social media are creating more stress in your daily life, consider giving yourself time limits, customizing your feed, reducing weekly use, and/or limiting yourself to one platform.

3)  Stay connected in real life.  Talk to friends, family, and co-workers.  Say hello to people on the street or chat with your bank teller, your barista, your grocery cashier.  This can directly counter those belonging threats as well as keep you grounded in the realities of everyday life.  Some further suggestions along these lines can be found here — http://gratefulness.org/blog/five-small-gestures-gratitude-counteract-fear-violence/

4)  If you are feeling overwhelmed and helpless, choose a cause and spend time connecting with organizations who support that cause:  donate, volunteer, make phone calls.  Trust that there are people fighting on all fronts, so you don’t have to do everything.  You can pick your battles.  Here’s one place you might start — https://loveisaction.us/Resources/

5)  If you are frightened and confused, educate yourself.  Authoritarianism thrives on fear and misinformation.  You can find many excellent resources online that explain our legal system and government structure.  Here are two to get you started: https://www.talksonlaw.com  and  https://www.lawcornell.edu

6)  Keep laughing.  It’s especially important during difficult times to find space for joy, for play, for humor.  Watch videos of baby animals, try laughter yoga, go to a comedy show, read a humorous novel.  There’s a reason satire and political comedy are so popular.

7)  Seek experiences of awe and wonder.  These experiences remind us of beauty and help us continue to find meaning in our daily lives.  Go for a hike, look up in the trees as you walk through a park, read poetry, go to the art museum, see live music, theatre, or dance.  

We all need encouragement and greater self-care when our stress increases.   It can help to write reminders in your calendar or on your to-do list.  However you do it, whether in the forms suggested above or in some other way that speaks to you, make time to give yourself the support you need.

Worried About the Election? You’re Not Alone.

In a recent New York Times article, “Talking to Your Therapist About Election Anxiety” , therapists weigh in about how the current election is impacting their clients.  People on all sides of the political spectrum are feeling anxious, afraid, and less safe. Our relentless news cycle exacerbates the hypervigilance many are experiencing.

We, too, have seen this happening with our clients; election anxiety is in the air. We find the advice given by the therapists in the article – take breaks from the news and social media – to be especially helpful.

For College Students, Anxiety Trumps Depression

by Judy Koven

According to an article in the June 2 New York Times, anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common mental health diagnosis of college students. Apparently, “mounting academic pressure at earlier ages, overprotective parents, and compulsive engagement with social media” are among the reasons college students seek counseling for intense and overwhelming anxiety.

This is consistent with our experience at Women’s Therapy Referral Service–in the last several years, more clients seeking therapy, typically women in their 20s-40s, come in with complaints of stress, anxiety, and panic attacks. Depression is now mentioned less often as the primary concern.

Emotions: the feminine advantage

by Martha Reynolds

A recent op-ed piece in the Sunday New York Times caught my attention. Although psychiatrist Julie Holland could say more about the benefits of medication for so many, what she does say is quite convincing. Namely, that having a full range of affect and emotions is vital for a healthy existence, particularly for women who have been subjugated far too long for their emotionality.

Monkey Mind

By Peggy Shafer

“What if your greatest fear is of being afraid?”
– Daniel Smith in Monkey Mind.

In any given year, 18% of American adults are suffering from an anxiety disorder; that 18% is just the diagnosable core of a western world population living in what has repeatedly been termed “The Age of Anxiety”. Though there are scores of internet sites that discuss symptoms and treatments for anxiety, perhaps it’s surprising that there aren’t as many such sites as there are photos of cats.

Though the commonly cited risk factors point to genetics, brain chemistry, personality and life experience, according to Daniel Smith, “Freedom is anxiety’s Petri dish. Freedom says, ‘Here are the lives you can choose, the different, conflicting, mutually exclusive lives.'”

In Monkey Mind—which is autobiographical, hilarious, informative and which has much wisdom to offer, often indirectly—the author isn’t just addressing freedom as a grand abstraction. He recounts in one very entertaining passage an occasion in which he froze in front of a condiments station, unable to choose between catsup and barbecue sauce, while the line of fast-food patrons grew behind him. In those anxious moments his nervous system reacted as if he was faced with a life-or-death choice. (Spoiler alert: He ended up putting barbecue sauce on one half of his meal and catsup on the other.) Freedom permits us scores of choices every day; for an anxiety sufferer each small fork in the road presents an opportunity to freeze with indecision: is this the right choice or is that over there the better choice?

Smith concludes that even though bouts of anxiety can recur throughout a lifetime, there are treatments and practices that, over time, can make an anxiety sufferer’s life less fraught and much more enjoyable.

Round table: Fight or Flight and False Alarms

A conversation between Chris, Sam, Anne, and Judy

Our fight-or-flight response, and the fear that accompanies it, is designed to protect us from harm, but what happens when this response is triggered by an imagined threat?

Fear and the fight/flight response was the topic at our most recent round table discussion, where we shared our thoughts about the many ways we are exposed to threats – both real and imagined – and the anxiety this can create in everyday life.

Judy commented that since 9/11, we have lived in a militarized atmosphere of heightened anxiety and fear. Others mentioned that our media often reinforces this fear state by continuously broadcasting recurring images of chaos and violence, and this level of exposure drives the anxiety even higher. We all agreed that we can become inundated with these messages of fear from our TVs, radios, computers, mobile devices, and social media, without even realizing the effects. Chris added that this could contribute to a distorted perception of reality and thus create a hyper-vigilant atmosphere.

This reminded us of the parallel to working with clients who experience an excessive amount of fear and anxiety in their daily lives. When we are dealing with overwhelming anxiety, we can easily fall into catastrophic thinking and become even more anxious about what we imagine is going to happen next.

It wasn’t hard for all of us to be reminded of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and the media frenzy around the few cases in the US. Although it is true that Ebola is a serious and potentially life-threatening disease, a lack of balance in reporting has led people to be afraid who are at a very low risk of catching this disease. This kind of fear has the potential to expand to include all infections, as well as other tragic events in the news, and a sense of personal helplessness can set in.

We thought of ways each of us deals with anxiety and treats it in our therapy practices, both with clients and within ourselves. Anne commented that having a safe space to work skillfully with fear and feelings that may be underneath it is work that has to proceed carefully in order to avoid increasing a client’s anxiety. Techniques such as orienting to the present moment experience, including reconnecting with one’s current surroundings, can alleviate anxiety because it shifts focus from a frightening imagined future or a painful traumatic past to the calm and safety of the therapy room.

Chris commented that we can’t be in fear and gratitude at the same time, so reminding
ourselves of what we’re grateful for can change our emotional state dramatically. We ended by noting how refreshing it felt to talk about ways we can avoid getting swept up in fear and agreed that there are things we can all do to help ourselves deal with the changes around and within us.