A clinical psychologist explains how to overcome the anxiety our politics in the Trump era
It’s no surprise that our office phone at the Center for Anxiety has been ringing off the hook since January 2017. From immigration and health care concerns to white supremacy — and let’s not forget the threat of nuclear war — there is plenty to be anxious about today.
Many of our patients have shared with us that the greatest concern is simply the fact that Donald Trump is president. They are worried because he seems like a loose cannon and they don’t feel they can trust him.
These concerns are reflected in a recent survey of Americans by George Washington University, on President Trump’s public discourse and behavior.
The poll, taken in mid-August, found that 71 percent of voters agreed that Trump’s “behavior is not what I expect from a president” (27 percent disagreed), and 68 percent agreed his “words and actions could get us accidentally involved in an international conflict” (29 percent disagreed). Further, almost two-thirds (63 percent) of the registered voters polled said the country is on the wrong track.
When the majority of people in our nation believe that the US president could accidentally get us in trouble abroad, it’s no wonder people are anxious and concerned.
So given the current political climate, it seems a good a time as ever to ask the question: What makes people anxious, and what can we do about it?
In a nutshell: Anxiety occurs when we struggle to tolerate and accept uncertainty. When we know exactly what to expect we may feel happy or sad, but not anxious — the latter only occurs when one does not fully know what’s coming next. In this regard, the Trump era is a ripe context for anxiety. Regardless of one’s political leanings, the lack of predictability from Washington is palpably real, and for some that means a life filled with sweaty palms, shortness of breath, muscle tension and difficulty sleeping.
How do we help our anxious patients struggling with these (and other) concerns?
Well, we have several strategies but one is to help them to realize the reality that life is always uncertain. Disaster can strike at any time and in any period of history or political leadership. Yes, it’s true that growing rhetoric and political tensions seem greater now than ever in recent memory. But peace and prosperity can prevail during volatile times just as conflict and poverty can occur despite political stability. The only real difference today is that we have a greater sense of our vulnerability than ever. And the result is unprecedented cause for anxiety and a massive increase in demand for evidence-based treatment.
To get practical: For individuals experiencing anxiety that causes significant distress or interferes with day to day life, it’s a good idea to see a mental health professional for a few sessions to get some strategies to cope. As a starting point, however, when we feel overwhelmed by political or other anxiety, it’s usually time to refocus on self-care.
Maintaining a regimen of vigorous cardiovascular exercise, eating a healthy and balanced diet, recalibrating the work-life balance, and shoring up our interpersonal relationships are all go-to strategies that can make a big difference in how we feel day to day. It can also be helpful to schedule time off from the news and social media. Among our patients, we’ve observed that a one-hour respite from media each day (e.g., during lunch and/or dinner) can help.
Beyond that, here’s an advanced self-help strategy based on the principles of Exposure Therapy: Set aside one to three minutes each day to worry about the worst things that could happen, and practice accepting the reality that we are not in control. This approach is scary and challenging to do but highly effective, because ultimately, approaching and accepting one’s anxiety — instead of avoiding it — is the best path forward. In these regards, the Trump era may ironically be the best to overcome our anxiety. After all, who today doesn’t have something to worry about?