What happens in the world around us affects our mental health, for better and for worse. And, regardless of our political leanings, we are living in exceptionally stressful times. In fact, a recent Gallup poll published in April, 2019, found that Americans were more stressed in the previous year than in the past decade, and that the United States now ranks among the most stressed nations in the world. While no causal connections were drawn in the report, anecdotal evidence points to our current sociopolitical climate as a contributing factor.
It seems worthwhile, if we can, to set aside the rush of daily news cycles, the pressing matters of the moment, and the president’s latest incendiary tweet to think more deeply and broadly about the potential deleterious impact of living in a world where the bedrocks of safety and predictability have been upended, norms and expectations long-held for elected officials have been abandoned, conflict has been inflamed, hatred has been unleashed, anxiety has been heightened, fear has been stoked, and trauma has been inflicted. And with the concurrent erosion of fundamental American hallmarks like the capacity for genuine dialogue, a willingness to compromise, and an overarching sense of unified purpose that have helped mediate such challenges in the past, we face these stark realities with diminished resources for comfort, coping, and coming together for the sake of a common good.
Possible Implications for Mental Health
Unfortunately, quality clinical research about the effects of the current political situation on mental health is hard to come by. There are reports that the number of people being seen by therapists has ramped up since the beginning of the Trump presidency, and that self-harm, suicide, and various manifestations of mental illness have increased as a result of the current sociopolitical climate. The increase in the number of people experiencing distress and seeking treatment seems especially true for younger people. At the same time, American culture has become notably more polarized and public discourse is clearly trending toward conflict and disagreement rather than constructive dialogue, thereby intensifying and prolonging stress and setting the stage for further potential impact on mental health.
Recognizing that individual responses to stress are unique and that there are a multitude of ways people might be affected by chronic stress, we can venture to list some specific things one might experience in relation to the current state of politics in America:
- Disruptions in basic life functions like eating and sleeping
- Problems paying attention and concentrating
- Feelings of helpless and powerlessness
- Sadness, lethargy, depression
- Withdrawal and social isolation
- Feelings of anxiety, panic attacks
- Irritability, agitation, frustration, and having a “short-fuse”
- Inclinations toward self-harm and suicide
- Reexperiencing of past trauma
- Dissociation – psychologically disconnecting from reality
Coping With Sociopolitical Stress
There is no handy guideline for coping with any of the effects of living in the world as it now exists. But there are basic ways to cope with stress. You might, for example:
- Mind the basics of self-care – eating well, exercising regularly, getting enough quality sleep, drinking enough water, etc. (Do some research about recommended amounts. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website is very helpful at www.cdc.gov.)
- Approach life in general with a sense of gratitude and give thanks for what you are thankful for. Gratitude can increase the quality and quantity of life.
- Find a sense of life purpose that can be reflected in meaningful goals. Even having a “wrong” purpose can help you live better and longer.
- Strengthen social connections, reaching out to old friends, making new friends, meeting up with people for enjoyable local activities by way of apps like Meetup.
- Seek support from a trusted friend with whom you can talk about your worries and concerns as well as your hopes and dreams.
- Seek help from a professional therapist or counselor, or from a pastor who is specifically trained in mental health intervention. (It is your right to ask about people’s qualifications.)
- Pray, meditate, or engage in some other meaningful spiritual practice – centering and connecting beyond oneself.
- Find and participate in the life of a religious community that offers comradery and support, as well as help with meaning-making and purposeful opportunities to make the world a better place.
- Give expression to your thoughts and feelings by way of journaling, writing, painting, drawing, sculpting, music, dance, drumming, or some other creative medium.
- Connect with nature, engaging all of your senses – gaze at the stars, listen to a babbling brook, notice the feel of the breeze, taste a fresh-picked piece of fruit, smell the roses, watch a butterfly fly by, etc.
- Be curious, explore, discover new things. Set your imagination free. Open yourself to delight and awe.
- Assert control over what you have control over, such as:
- building a rich, full, and varied life that allows for focus on other things
- tuning out the news from time to time or for longer periods
- participating in or organizing a rally for a cause that matters to you
- writing to your elected officials, organizing a writing campaign around an issue of interest
- voting, becoming involved in a political campaign, or running for office
Generally Live, Laugh, and Love
And never underestimate the healing power of conversation that involves listening attentively to others and having others listen attentively to you. Listening requires being quiet enough and for long enough to hear an other. Listening can allow us to experience other people more as they truly are – as multi-dimensional beings who cannot be defined by any specific factor upon which we might be focused in any one moment. Just as we know that we are more than, say, our stance on a particular issue, so is the other with whom we might relate. Know that healing conversations are not opportunities to try to persuade another person of a particular viewpoint or to rebut what the other is saying; listening acknowledges but does not necessarily imply agreement with the other.
A simple way to engage in healing interactions is to have each person in a pair or small group respond to a very general question like, “How did you get here in your life?” and having the other(s) shut up for as long as it takes the speaker to respond – which can take minutes or hours. Sometimes it can be intensely challenging to be quiet and refrain from asking questions or inserting our own thoughts and stories, but truly listening and even letting silences linger can be magical and transformative, for both the one listening and the one being listened to. Often, it is possible to find more commonalities with the other than differences in such moments of sharing, especially if we follow Stephen Covey’s advice to “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” Sometimes the common ground is simply our shared humanity. Honest and real conversation that creates space – perhaps even sacred space – for both participants can be incredibly validating, and it can highlight meaningful intersections where life can happen and love can grow. Indeed Mr. Rogers once said that “Listening is where love begins.” May it be so.
Because it is often hard to come to terms with trauma and stress while they are still happening, it may be that it will take historians, with the benefit of hindsight, to help us more fully comprehend the impact of this (hopefully) aberrant period of American history and its effects on our individual and collective mental health and well-being. Nevertheless, we can acknowledge that these are particularly challenging times. Yet there is a way forward that involves honestly taking stock in the way things are, finding ways to rebuild and reinforce social connections across present differences, learning to talk with each other again, and unifying around higher ideals and a shared common purpose. We are all in this together, and together we can find a better way.
Rev. Dr. Marty Kuchma
Rev. Dr. Marty Kuchma is the Senior Pastor at Paul’s United Church of Christ, Westminster, Maryland and Professor of Practice at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He's also the author of the book, Church Be Nimble: Organizational Dynamics and Creativity in Mainline Congregations