Q&A: Therapist talks hardships of 2017 and how to manage expectations for the new year

Americans reported an increase in anxiety throughout 2017 under President Donald Trump. Therapist William Doherty specifically started a movement to help others address this.
therapist, therapy, therapy 2017, anxiety, therapist advice, therapy 2018
Looking ahead to 2018, a therapist shared advice on how to handle politics-related stresses. (iStock)

If 2017 was a hard year for you, you weren’t alone. Plenty of people talked about how their anxiety spiked because of political news and polls. As the year comes to a close and we look ahead to 2018, it’s a perfect time to assess how the year affected your mental health and think about what new habits you can start.

 

Metro spoke with William Doherty, a licensed psychologist, professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota and the founder of Citizen Therapists for Democracy, an association of therapists focused on helping people keep their emotional balance “during the Trump era and beyond.”

 

Metro: Anecdotally, I think we’ve all heard a lot about how this year has been hard for many people because of political situations. Is that true in your experience as a therapist?
William Doherty: Oh yeah. I’ve been practicing for 40 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this, and the poll data support that — that Americans are more anxious about our country, and [politics] is affecting people in their personal lives and affecting relationships.

You specifically reached out to other therapists about what their role is in the Trump Era. Can you explain that?
I started an organization called Citizen Therapists for Democracy after the election because of what I was seeing, and I also co-founded an organization called Better Angels, which is doing polarization workshops around the country for what we call "reds" and "blues." Therapists are in the business of helping people deal with stress, anxiety, depression and relationship problems. It’s just that we didn’t pay much attention to what I call “public stress” and “political stress,” maybe because lots of people weren’t presenting with that, but now they are. So we’ve had a sort of wake-up call to pay attention to these things.

What were some of the biggest challenges you heard that people faced in 2017?
One of them is problems in friendships and family relationships over political differences, that tends to spike at times like Thanksgiving and Christmas, with people making decisions about whether to even be with family, and then how to handle themselves, if they are a blue in a sea of reds, or vice versa. Another is with the sexual harassment stuff — that is triggering memories and experiences in a lot of women, and so that’s been spiking since the Weinstein thing.

What are some ways people can cope with these stressors?
One is what we call buffering coping: How do you protect yourself from overexposure to this stress? If Trump’s tweets spike your blood pressure, you don’t have to read his tweets, you don’t have to follow him on Twitter. Similarly, if you’re a conservative, you don’t have to watch MSNBC to get yourself angry. You can limit unnecessary exposure.

The other is active coping, where you do things in your life that you feel good about and feel could contribute to the common good. You can be volunteering somewhere; it doesn’t have to be just political action. The way I think of it is: What can you do to enact your values in the world? That’s a way to think about being somebody who contributes, not just somebody who is passibly trying to fend off all the stress that comes at you.

 

Some of the blame has also been put on the year, 2017, for being "bad." As we enter 2018, what are ways for people to manage their expectations about what kind of year it will be?
We do tend to punctuate time that way, but what I can just tell you is what I do in terms of the political situation. I remember that our country has been around for about 240 years, and we have survived hard times before. We will survive this.

Some of it is sort of making an act of faith in the nation — most of it is out of our control. I do worry when people put their own emotional equilibrium on the line, based on some political event that is entirely out of their control. Like, if you’re a Democrat and you think, the Democrats will win the Congress this year. If you’re a Democrat, it’s not bad to hope for that, but if you put your emotional health, your emotional balance on the line for some political event that you have little control over, that’s where the problem is.

 

Any last pieces of advice or hopes for the new year?
I wish that people who feel polarized, with regard to people in the other [political] party, that they would make an effort this year to reach out to a couple of people on the other side to try to understand them better. Not to try to persuade them to change their mind, but to try to just understand them better. [You can do this through better-angels.org.]

 
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