If you pay attention to the news at all right now, you might be a little stressed out. It’s not even a partisan matter — political instability is affecting people across the American political spectrum and around the world.
In November, the American Psychological Association (APA) polled the public and found that 52 percent of Americans were stressed out by the election. As it turned out, the end of election season didn’t give us a break from stressful news. In its follow-up survey by Harris Poll this January, the APA found that the current political climate was a significant source of stress for 57 percent of Americans. Again, that was January. The news has only gotten more complicated since.
“The stress we’re seeing around political issues is deeply concerning, because it’s hard for Americans to get away from it,” said Katherine C. Nordal, PhD, APA’s executive director for professional practice. “We’re surrounded by conversations, news and social media that constantly remind us of the issues that are stressing us the most.”
All that stress has a psychological and physiological impact. About a third of the poll respondents reported anxiety, and a similar number reported headaches, depression or overwhelm. So you’re empirically not alone if you’re stressed out, anxious or depressed about the current political climate. There’s a lot going on, and some of it may directly affect you. Whether or not it does, your feelings are legitimate — now, what can you do about it?
Talk to a therapist
You may or may not be comfortable discussing specific political viewpoints with your therapist, and they may or may not be comfortable talking about them with you. But if politics are distressing you, your therapist should know. If specifics are off the table, you can always discuss how to manage your stress and how to minimize its impact on your life.
For example, here’s what Dr. Robert Bright, a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic, told The New York Times back in November.
“I see a lot of hypervigilance,” Dr. Bright said. “I hear of people checking fivethirtyeight.com three and four times a day to see if the numbers have shifted,” he said. “It’s exhausting to live with that level of constant anxiety. You carry that tension in your body and it wears you out.”
Therapists say they offer their patients coping techniques. Rather than tell yourself to stop worrying, which rarely works, Dr. Bright suggests setting aside time to worry, like when you get home from work or during your lunch break. “This is a behavioral technique called thought stopping, and it can be very effective,” he said.
See? That’s not a discussion about what you think the White House should be up to — it’s a conversation about dealing constructively with a tangible problem in your life. Therapists are great for that kind of thing.
Limit your exposure
Constantly refreshing Twitter, Facebook or Google News to see what new bombshell has dropped is just as exhausting as our pre-election hypervigilance was. Because there’s so much going on, it might also feel especially rewarding or necessary right now. If you can limit your social media use, now might be a good time to make that a habit. If you rely on Twitter for work, that’s a bit harder.
One alternative is to heavily curate your feed. Think about all those words that might stress you out in the right political context. “Russia,” let’s say. You can block every tweet containing the word Russia on your feeds by using Plume on Android, Tweetbot on iOS and Tweetdeck on desktop (here’s how). Yes, you may miss out useful or entertaining tweets from time to time, but it might be worth it to keep stressful situations from popping out at you when you’re not prepared to deal with them. You can always switch back to the official Twitter client during your pre-planned window for worrying.
It might even be helpful to get your news from a newspaper — or at least a newspaper’s website. Checking a single source once or twice a day is far less disruptive than keeping a non-stop feed of news flowing into your head. Our clinical director, Dr. B., suggests asking yourself what you gain (aside from anxiety) from 24-hours of news exposure, when you can learn the important facts in under an hour a day. You might not always have up-to-the-moment information, but maybe you’ll find that’s a compromise you can live with.
Get a hobby
Our minds are wonderful, complicated organs, but they’ve got one big limitation: they can’t focus intently on many things at once.
When you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, that can be a very helpful limitation to rely on.
Bustle recently shared a great list of hobbies that can help reduce anxiety. Some are proven mood boosters, others will keep your thoughts otherwise occupied. Exercise is an obvious choice as it hits both notes, but painting, journaling, exploring the outdoors and taking classes all come highly recommended.
It can be tough to feel like events are completely out of your control. If so, it may help to get involved. Volunteering has the potential to be very beneficial, as this article from Berkeley University of California explains.
“People who were in better physical and mental health were more likely to volunteer,” reported the study’s leader, Peggy Thoits, a Vanderbilt University sociologist. “And conversely, volunteer work was good for both mental and physical health. People of all ages who volunteered were happier and experienced better physical health and less depression.”
Building on that study, researchers Marc Musick and John Wilson at the University of Texas used the same data but focused in on mental health. They, too, found that over time, volunteering lowered depression. “Some of the protection came from the social integration of volunteering,” Musick found. “Volunteer work improves access to social and psychological resources, which are known to counter negative moods.”
You don’t have to get involved in big, public demonstrations to benefit. Volunteering in your community can make a positive difference, and you can focus on the causes that matter to you.
However you do it, it’s important to take time for yourself right now. The news will still be there when you come back, and the time away can help you find perspective. Remember, there’s a lot more to life than the latest headlines, and you may need to save your energy to deal with it.