Political Stress? You’re Not Alone

May 5, 2017

It turns out the vast majority of people are struggling, just like you. A recent article by prominent clinical psychologist and author Dr. Michael Yapko shares the details:

The American Psychological Association (APA) conducted a poll in January regarding Americans’ feelings about the current political and social climate in the United States.

The results will probably not surprise Americans, but our international friends may be at least a little surprised that the stress level in America has escalated so greatly in so short a time.
Here are some of the findings:

  • 57% of Americans say the current political climate is a very or somewhat significant source of stress.
  • 72% of Democrats report the presidential election result as a significant source of stress, compared to only 26 % of Republicans.
  • 76% of Democrats report that concern for the future of the nation is a significant source of stress, and a 59% majority of Republicans feel the same way.

Education is clearly a mediating factor:

  • 53% of those with more than a high school education reported higher stress associated with the election outcome compared to 38% of those with a high school education or less.
  • Respondents also reported specific stress related symptoms such as headaches (34%), feeling overwhelmed or anxious (33%) and depressed or sad (32%) regarding current conditions.

This poll was conducted in January, before dropping the “Mother of All Bombs” on Syria and before the saber rattling with North Korea. It seems a safe assumption that the numbers of distressed Americans have since gone up. We can also assume lots of people in other countries feel every bit as worried.

stressAnecdotal reports support this study. Colleagues are seeing an increase in the number of people presenting with symptoms of stress from the political climate. The intrusion of these issues into our daily lives from news reports and notifications on our phones of “breaking news” creates a challenge for all of us.

No amount of antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs can help people develop the skills needed to cope with the stresses of an unpredictable president and political extremists whose actions regularly challenge our collective and basic needs for stability and predictability.

The APA offers advice to stay informed, but only to the extent that it doesn’t stress you to the detriment of your mental and physical health.

Mental health professionals are experienced in dealing with clients who are anxious and depressed. There’s nothing new about that. It’s the political and social factors that are changing the playing field. Or, are they?

As a general rule, avoidance is not a good coping strategy, although at times it can be helpful to a point. Even more valuable than simply avoiding or worrying is taking meaningful action steps.

A “call to action” is the political term for getting your voice heard, but it is the same useful prescription for depression and anxiety that therapists have known for years. We refer to it as “behavioral activation.”

So, addressing the “big picture,” it doesn’t matter if our clients are stressed by their job, their relationships, their elected officials or changing social conditions and policies. Therapists are equipped to deal with these issues through helping clients recognize what they and can and can not control and then encouraging sensible action.

What action steps may be taken is influenced by the context. For example, with political stress, the marches and rallies that have been held regularly over the last couple of months have been quite effective in slowing down and even preventing the implementation of policies many find objectionable. Feeling that one has control over some aspect of an otherwise uncontrollable situation is helpful.

When possible, striving to change the conditions and, when not possible, changing our responses to the conditions is a valuable guide for managing the stressors we are facing in today’s world.

Sensible, focused action is a great way to feel connected to others with similar views, and provides steps towards meaningful goals. Physical participation is great when possible, phone calls and emails when it isn’t.

Stewing in one’s anger or fear is simply not a good option from a health perspective – or from the standpoint of wanting to make a difference.

To read the full APA report, called “Stress in America,” visit www.stressinamerica.org.

Thanks to Dr. Michael Yapko for permission to share this article.