In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum and the US presidential election, it became common, on the losing side, to compare the experience to a death in the family. First came the punch to the gut, the thunderbolt of disbelief. Then came the days when you would find yourself going about your business as if nothing untoward had happened, only to recall, each time with a fresh wave of nausea, that it had.
In one major respect, however, this analogy has turned out to be wrong. By this point, following a “normal” bereavement, you might expect the process of recovery to be underway. The wound may never heal, but things reorder themselves around the injury and life moves on. To put it mildly, this is not how things seem to be unfolding on the leafy Greenwich Village block in New York where Paul Saks keeps his consulting room.
“The traumas come so quickly – every day brings something else – that now there’s a certain despair and numbness that has set in,” says Saks, a psychotherapist and psychiatrist whose patients are overwhelmingly liberal New Yorkers. One recent patient, a grandson of Holocaust survivors, was distressed by Donald Trump’s cosiness with neo-Nazis; a current client, who is gay, “jokes about waiting for the moment they come and round gay people up and take them off to the camp. But the way the patient says it, it’s not quite a joke.” Those without any specific, identifiable reason for worry or anger are hardly immune, though. In a way that strikes many therapists and counsellors as new, politics is now the panicky drumbeat behind clients’ concerns.
“The level of anxiety in ordinary people is extraordinary,” says Emmy van Deurzen, a London-based therapist and philosopher, and a passionate remainer. “I see it in all my patients. We don’t feel the same sense, as we once did, that we can take things for granted, that everything is going to be fine.” (“Anxiety”, of course, need not always refer to a diagnosed disorder; nebulous feelings of anxiety are far more widespread than that.) Many of those who consult her are EU nationals. Now, with some distance on the referendum itself, “I see a lot more of them who are angry, because it’s all been going on for such a long time. Before, people thought: ‘We’ll hang in there and governments will sort things out.’ Now, it’s clear governments aren’t doing that, so people stop feeling the sense that things will right themselves.”
A bereavement, for all its awfulness, is a one-off event. But the erratic behaviour in the White House – like the protracted negotiations with the EU – provides fresh cause for worry or fear every day. The impact of this is becoming clear: earlier this year, a survey conducted annually by the American Psychological Association found that 57% of respondents were stressed by the political climate; overall, the survey found the first significant uptick in national anxiety levels in the 10 years the organisation had been measuring them. In the UK, the Office for National Statistics has recorded a rise in self-reported anxiety, while other research has found significant increases in worry about the future, as well as bemusement, anger and resentment about Brexit in a large majority of young people. The uncertainty is felt on both sides of the political divide: you needn’t have voted remain to feel concerned about the mixed messages and wasted money, or the prospect of many years of increasingly fractious negotiations.
What makes all this headline-induced distress especially troublesome is the way that, however unwittingly, we end up conspiring in maintaining and spreading it. When you find yourself otherwise powerless in the face of great political forces – your views unrepresented by the governments supposedly safeguarding your interests – worry can feel like doing something useful. By extension, persuading other people to feel worried feels like getting them involved productively as well.
“Anxiety is conductive,” the designer and anti-Trump campaigner Mike Monteirohas written. “It wants to travel from one person to another person. And, once it sees itself in that person, it feels justified in being in that first person.” Ever since Trump’s inauguration, many commentators have stressed the importance of refusing to “normalise” his dishonesty, bigotry and disdain for the democratic process. Well-intended as this is, in practice it has usually meant normalising the state of being constantly agitated about them instead.
On top of this, it is common, especially among activists, to portray outrage as morally obligatory. (“If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention,” goes a familiar slogan.) It follows that anyone who manages not to be driven wild with fury is failing to take things seriously – perhaps because their privilege is protecting them from experiencing the worst of what is happening. The reasoning here is that stoking anger or anxiety is essential in order to motivate and energise. But psychological research suggests this is far from the most reliable result, which is making people upset. In the long term, ceaseless fury is probably more likely to curdle into passivity and cynicism, as people seek relief from their anger by numbing themselves to the news.
It would be nicer, obviously, to be able to deal with worrying political developments by keeping them at arm’s length: staying informed, taking a few constructive actions, and otherwise not letting them get to you. And the background anxiety of being a generally fortunate person living through politically stressful times shouldn’t be equated with the stress of those directly experiencing their impact – whether in the form of government cuts to welfare and services or the fear of deportation.
But shocks such as Brexit and Trump’s victory, therapists explain, operate on two levels, delivering double the distress. On one hand, the events themselves are troubling enough: there is no mystery in someone being stressed by a surge in reported hate crimes or by the prospect of nuclear war. But they also activate more primordial fears. The Brexit vote, the psychoanalyst Susie Orbach wrote shortly afterwards, was experienced by her clients “as an assault on senses of self, of identity and of community that people didn’t know they carried inside them and relied upon until the vote shattered it”. Alternatively, take the mounting tensions between Washington and Pyongyang: “That’s legitimately terrifying in its own right, of course,” Saks says. “But it could evoke different kinds of terror in different people. Some people have basic fears that the world is a dangerous place, because their parents weren’t there to protect them. Someone else might feel they’re fundamentally unlovable and now the world is going to end without their ever having the relationship they’d wanted so badly.”
All this is greatly exacerbated by social media, which makes every new development, however minor, feel like a crisis, while also offering a ready means of taking actions that feel worthwhile, but largely aren’t, through responding, sharing or liking. In an attention economy, no social network will ever have an incentive to communicate the message that the latest presidential tweet or spat between Brexit ministers isn’t worth your consideration, or to suggest that it may be best if you stopped marinating all day in the antics of the world’s worst people and went for a walk in the park instead.
Some months ago, a client of Robin Chancer, a therapist in Akron, Ohio, came to her complaining of a loss of faith in humanity, in her country and in herself. “Is this depression?” the woman asked. “Or is this the election?” It was a good question. “When you’re living through times like these, it can be hard to say whether the problem is everything around you. or something more biological or longstanding,” Chancer says. In some sense, it’s always both. But one of the biggest obstacles to moving forward, she argues, is that we subtly fail to accept what is happening around us.
If you spend significant portions of your week watching or reading the news in open-mouthed horror, this may seem an improbable claim. Of course you acknowledge that what is happening is happening: isn’t this the whole reason you are stressed? However, according to Chancer’s perspective – which is rooted in the tradition of dialectical behaviour therapy, combining cognitive behavioural therapy with ideas from Buddhism – our worry and anger is frequently fuelled by a subtle but intense insistence that things should not be as they are. “We fight against our pain by thinking: ‘This should not have happened,’ by imagining a different world we wish were there, then crying out because it’s not there – all of which just causes a lot more suffering. It steals a lot of our energy, because we’re using it to insist that this shouldn’t be, rather than dealing with the fact that it is. I see a lot of people saying: ‘Can you believe this? This is unbelievable!’ But I don’t think that’s very helpful, because it is believable – it’s happening. And the more we just yell out: ‘How can that be?’ the more we risk getting stuck there.” The same yearning for a preferable but nonexistent situation presumably explains the persistent belief, among some pundits, that Trump may finally be shamed into better behaviour – a hope that overlooks years of evidence that he is entirely incapable of feeling shame.
The alternative to this kind of inner resistance is “radical acceptance”, but Chancer emphasises that this need not involve condoning any aspect of the situation – only accepting that it is, in fact, real. Indeed, such acceptance may be a necessary precondition for making any substantive change to that situation, she says: “We have to let ourselves move along with this horrible river we’re in. We keep hoping we’ll wake up or that someone will save us, but instead we’re going to have to cut a lot of losses and figure out how we’re going to come to terms with all this.” In an article she wrote earlier this year, entitled How To Stay Sane If Trump Is Driving You Insane, Chancer quoted the therapist Marsha Linehan: “The path out of hell is through misery. By refusing to accept the misery that is part of climbing out of hell, you fall back into hell.”
Once we can face the facts and channel our energies more wisely, we may be better placed to take the next critical step in alleviating news-induced stress, on which every therapist I interviewed agreed: taking action. Almost any action, but especially action in the physical presence of likeminded people. (Financial donations are also important, since they will sometimes make a difference to the cause you are supporting, but they are likely to have less effect on your own wellbeing.) “You’ve got to stop being passive and start being active,” Van Deurzen says. “The people who are having the hardest time right now are those who feel they can only be passive. But the moment you say: ‘I’m going to get hold of some information, organise, make a plan and connect with other people,’ then you start to feel you’re preparing for the future, rather than being doomed.”
Van Deurzen, who was born in the Netherlands, says she has always felt European, “but I always felt the UK never really understood the importance of Europe. Now, when I go on a march and I’m surrounded by 100,000 other Brits who know this and will fight for it and feel it deeply, I’m buoyed up.”
There may be little basis for assuming everything will be all right; but there are grounds for eschewing despair. To the extent that it is appropriate to use the language of trauma to describe the shocks of Brexit and Trump, it is worth noting that the best-known response to it – post-traumatic stress disorder – is rare. More common is “post-traumatic growth”. “People look back on their lives and see those moments of greatest stress and upheaval, which seemed so traumatic at the time – they see that those were the points of growth, that changed their lives for the better,” Van Deurzen says.
Bearing this in mind can serve as an antidote to being swept away by fear or worry – as can remembering that getting swept away by emotion is often exactly what certain people want. “We should do a lot less crying out in despair,” Chancer says. “Trump wants power and as long as he has the power to create this kind of emotional reaction, he’s winning and he knows it, no matter how much we might wish he were teachable or shameable or rational. Instead, we should clarify our focus and look to the tools at hand. Then the question becomes not: ‘How did this happen?’ or: ‘Why did this happen?’ but: ‘What can we do now?’”
How to cope with bad world news
1 Look after yourself
“Self-care” has become a cliche, but while it is far from the panacea it is sometimes claimed to be, it is a crucial ingredient in staying sane. You may be surprised how frequently even the most dramatically apocalyptic thoughts and feelings turn out to be down to insufficient food or sleep. Meanwhile, plenty of research testifies to the enormous psychological benefits of even a small amount of time spent in nature.
2 Limit your exposure
The straightforward advice issued by the American Psychological Association during the US election campaign – “If the 24-hour news cycle is causing you stress, limit your media consumption” – still applies. Every news update trumpets its own importance, but it hardly follows that each one matters.
3 Stop fighting reality (or your feelings)
According to several schools of psychotherapy, a great deal of the unpleasantness we attribute to external events, or to our emotions, arises from resisting them. It is worth remembering that “anxiety and similar feelings are fairly appropriate reactions, normal responses, to completely abnormal things going on,” says therapist Paul Saks. There is no need to feel bad about feeling bad.
4 Take real-world action
“Solidarity is huge and being active really matters,” says therapist Emmy van Deurzen. Any actions you consider meaningful will start to replace feelings of helplessness – which are closely associated with depression – with a sense of agency. If possible, keep the emphasis on those involving direct interaction with other people, rather than online “slacktivism”.
5 Keep a sense of perspective
None of this means the end of the world. (Well, probably not – and not just yet.) “Keep in mind that there’s a longer game to be played,” Saks says. Especially in the current climate, news that seems monumental today may not seem very significant in a month or two, let alone a year or more. “Not to negate the fact that real harm is being done now, but we’re resilient and, in the long run, this will pass.”
Link Original: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/nov/04/every-day-trauma-keeping-calm-anxious-world-therapist-tips