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Managing Panic and Anxiety During Political Turmoil

The news is full of stressful uncertainties that have the potential to severely impact the wellbeing of many millions of Americans. This instability disproportionately affects those who are at risk for losing health insurance and other basic government supports for mental health, chronic illness, and special needs. Therapists are seeing a steady increase in political stress, which has even led to talk of a ‘post-election stress disorder.’ Here are some suggestions that I share with my clients to manage panic and anxiety, in spite of high political tensions and turmoil.

1. Be mindful of the body’s flight or fight response in times of stress.

Our bodies have a natural alarm system for stress. You may notice physical changes in a moment of stress, such as shortness of breath, racing heart, muscle tension, sweating, and temperature changes — among others. These changes prepare the body’s stress response — to either fight or run away. This reaction makes sense given the fact that we inherited our biology from ancestors who had to fight off wild animals to survive. Today, we don’t usually cross paths with tigers and bears, and yet — your body may experience other stresses — such as politics, family tension, or worry — as if you were literally fighting off these threats. (No wonder you have been snapping at your partner so much lately, amiright?)

2. Know the difference between fear and anxiety.

Fear is a protective instinct that keeps us safe when we are in immediate danger. Many people currently experience the very real threat of discrimination, deportation, or violence in this country, which should not be tossed off as simple anxiety, and in some cases is actually protective fear. Fear motivates you to seek out safety. Anxiety, in contrast is, fear OF fear. Anxiety is feeling fearful of the idea of a threat, when one is not actually in immediate danger. It is important for us to trust fear instincts so that we can recognize when we are unsafe and get out of danger. Recognizing when we feel anxious, but are safe, can help us use other tools such as relaxation to help us calm down in a moment of stress.

In a moment of stress, ask yourself: Am I safe right now?

If the answer is NO, go ahead and call 9–1–1 or do whatever you need to do to get to safety. If the answer is YES, but you still feel unsafe, then calm the body down with simple relaxation strategies. This GIF works for me every time.

3. Soothe your body to get unstuck from fight or flight.

The truth is that the body’s fight or flight can help us get out of some dangerous situations. Your body is pumping chemicals that will make you run faster, be more alert, and react more quickly. It be really difficult though if you get stuck in fight or flight because of persistent worry or a panic attack.Not only is it scary, but many of your body’s other important functions, such as sleep, appetite, mood, and executive functioning shut down because the nervous system in emergency mode. This is why engaging another important instinct — the body’s rest and digest response — is so important. Soothing your body with mindfulness techniques can get you unstuck from fight or flight to be calm in the present moment. Relaxation skills can also help you stay safe because you will have the internal reserves to be more attentive and responsive if danger does arise. Here are some suggestions for grounding exercises, mindfulness apps, and other stress management tips.

4. Be mindful of how political turmoil affects your wellbeing.

Tune in with how political stress affects your mood and health. Notice any patterns in your stress, such as how you feel after watching or reading the news, worrying about politics, or talking about current events with others. Notice how political disagreement with others affects your relationships, as well as your personal sense of identity. Notice also, any urges to avoid politics or try to block out or numb how it makes you feel. You will need to balance out all the effects of political stress by practicing strategic self-care. Take care of yourself in equal and opposite measure to effects of post-election stress. Use all of the same strategies that have worked for you during less stressful periods of your life, such as exercise, music, passion projects, and community. You may need them now more than ever.

5. Find moments of safety between significant periods of stress.

For many individuals whose legal status, health access, or other protections are in jeopardy, it can be hard to shut off stress. You may find yourself thinking about it all of the time. While acknowledging real and ongoing threats in our lives, it is still possible to find respite in small moments of safety. Practice gentle belly breathing, gaze at a beautiful sunset, squeeze loved ones tightly and tell them you love them. Savor pleasure found in small moments to recharge your batteries to confront another day in the post-election landscape.

6. Channel any lingering anxiety into action that makes you feel safe.

Develop a safety plan with your loved ones for emergencies. Build spaces into your life where you find trusting and loving relationships. Access resources that will make you and your loved ones feel safe in a practical way. Talk with others when you feel stressed. These are not normal times, and talking with others will make you feel less alone in managing emotional stress. You may want to consider starting a small group of friends to meet regularly and share stress management ideas. Therapy is also a good idea if regular self-care strategies aren’t working for you or if you feel disconnected with others. Many will channel their anxiety and frustration into political activism to work towards long-term solutions for safety. Here are some tips for taking care of yourself during acts of political resistance. Find safety wherever you can and enjoy these times of respite, even if they are brief moments.

7. Practice hope when when you feel hopeless.

Acknowledging all of your feelings and learning from them is important, but practicing hope is essential for self-preservation and deserves a little extra attention. Find what personally gives you hope. What works for someone else may not work for you and vice versa. Maybe you find hope in taking the long view of history, and thinking about how past movements of people have overcome adversity. Or maybe you will be inspired by new waves of activism. Maybe you will find hope in artistic expressions of political resistance. And if you look, surely you will find personal strengths that will get you through this time, which should also give you hope. Find your own voice of hope and become part of a chorus that gives hope to others.

We’ll get through this together.

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