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How to cope with Trump-induced anxiety

When politics sparks a national mental health issue.

It’s been less than a month since Trump’s inauguration, but things are moving quickly. Each day sees an avalanche of extreme executive orders, controversial cabinet appointments and nationwide protests that have many Americans feeling emotionally-charged and agitated.

Pre-election stress was a widespread (and bipartisan) phenomenon, with the American Psychological Association (APA) reporting that more than half of Americans were experiencing election-induced anxiety in the days leading up to Nov. 8. You could call our current plight “post-inauguration stress” — but four years of mass high-anxiety is not sustainable.

Related: Deepak Chopra helps curb your election anxiety

Maryland therapist Dr. Steven Stosny, who coined the term “election stress disorder,” now refers to our nation’s affliction as “headline stress disorder.”

“For many people, continual alerts from news sources, blogs, social media and alternative facts feel like missile explosions in a siege without end,” Stosny writes in the Washington Post.

Dr. Ellen Slawsby, an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, agrees that the non-stop exposure to the news cycle is overwhelming.

“There’s so much news coming in, the brain and the body can’t handle it,” she says. “If you just let it all flow in like a wild ocean tide, you’re going to drown.”

Limit your news intake

Slawsby, who is also the director of chronic pain services at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, says that in her sessions with patients, “the election has come up much more than I’ve ever seen in my 25 years in practice.”

She urges her patients, who are seeing symptoms of chronic illness exacerbated by political anxieties, to regulate how much they’re consuming. While many of us constantly scroll Twitter or set push notifications on our phones so as not to be a second behind word of the latest hot button issue — with the exception of folks who work in breaking news media, that’s a choice that we’re making, she says.

She recommends setting aside a time to read the news; maybe twenty minutes in the morning, or twenty minutes at the end of the day, to stay informed, but not overwhelmed. And logging on too close to bedtime is a recipe for insomnia, she says. (Besides the obvious detriment of getting emotionally-revved up before a time of rest, research has shown that pre-bed screentime, specifically the exposure to the artificial light, disrupts Circadian rhythms and interferes with the sleep cycle.)

Prioritize health and self-care

Dr. Danielle Ofri, an internist at Bellevue Hospital, says that although she’s a primary care physician, she ends up devoting time in her appointments to discuss her patients’ anxieties about the current administration.

At Bellevue, many of her patients are immigrants, she says, who are concerned about what their future looks like under Trump.

“In our visits, diabetes and heart disease are pushed aside as we use our medical time to address the fear that has infiltrated their lives,” Ofri, the author of “What Patients Say, What Doctors Hear,”wrotein a recent article for Slate, “Should Doctors Treat Trump Anxiety?”

Ofri says she encourages them to focus on taking care of their mental and physical health, despite looming uncertainty.

“Does it seem crazy to exercise when you could be deported next week? On the one hand, yes,” she says. “On the other hand, if you have high blood pressure and exercise helps to keep that from spiraling out of control and having even more devastating effects….[I tell them] to focus on that.”

Develop a relaxation response

“The key is remembering that stress is a perception of a threat, and a perception that we can’t cope with it,” says Slawsby. “Most things we actually can cope with. We are very resilient as human beings.”

To harness that inner resiliency, she urges her patients to engage in a daily, 20 minute“relaxation response”— anything from meditation todeep breathingtoexercise. These activities decrease the body’s production of stress hormones (adrenal and cortisol), while releasing endorphins, the brain chemical that functions as a natural mood elevator (the culprit behind the much-touted “runner’s high”), and help us find balance and strength in our day to day.

Find your community

“Social support is key; finding individuals you can talk with about your stress,” says Slawsby.

For some, that could mean seeking out activism efforts, connecting with groups that are organizing protests, writing letter to congressmen or other resistance efforts — to exchange a sense of hopelessness and despair for one of mutual direction and agency. For others, it could mean commiserating with a likeminded friend.

Learning to reexamine negative, grandiose thought patterns is essential for stamina. “The idea that we’re never going to be happy or safe again; you have to ask yourself it that’s 100 percent true. If the answer is no, there’s wiggle room,” says Slawsby. “We can reframe that thought: this is a very challenging time for this country, but the country has always come through. Individuals have thought that the A bomb was the end of the world.”

 

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