Editor’s Note: We are grateful to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and want to acknowledge the members of its multicultural committee that were instrumental in researching and collaborating to create this informative and helpful article.
Anxiety and fear are natural human emotions. Sweaty palms, hearts racing, stomachaches, worry, racing thoughts, and fear — these are all part of the body’s fight, flight, or freeze response, which makes us ready for action and keeps us safe. Alternatively, this response can be overwhelming and leave us paralyzed in fear. As one of our most primal emotions, fear is an easily learned response because it is adaptive and crucial to our survival, and it becomes part of our emotional system.
All of our emotions are the body’s communication tools, giving information about how the world is affecting us internally and externally. We discover what is threatening, what to fear, and what to be anxious about through personal experience, observing other people’s experiences, and receiving instructions from other people, education, history, media, and other sources. Leading up to and following the 2016 Presidential election, many of us have been feeling more anxiety and fear in response to what we see on the news, notice on the street, and hear about in new policies. In short, we are worried about increased threats1.
More Psychological Consequences
Discrimination and marginalization based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, immigration status, class, and disability status are longstanding issues with documented psychological consequences2 in our country. The recent increase in hate crimes3 and bigoted speech related to this election are creating a heightened threat for many, particularly when coupled with proposed national policies that will affect marginalized groups.
Resulting increases in anxiety are natural, understandable, and human. Individuals who identify as racialized minorities, LGBTQ+, immigrants, Muslims, women, disabled, and other marginalized groups, as well as sexual assault survivors and those with related traumatic experiences may feel betrayed, abandoned, and unsafe. This is an understandable response to heightened discriminatory rhetoric, the increase in hate crimes, and the related sense that this type of language and bigotry are now permitted4.
Feelings and Fears Not to Ignore
Although some people may dismiss these feelings and fears as unjustified or unfounded, ignoring them can lead to harmful effects on anxiety and mental health. Hate crimes can be traumatic, leaving the target feeling frightened, vulnerable, exposed, angry, hopeless, and a whole host of other painful emotions; these emotions are completely natural and justified.
Seeing or hearing about people who look like you or belong to your community experience discrimination and harm can be painful and frightening. This type of vicarious exposure can turn on your fear responses and bring up painful feelings and memories of your own experiences with marginalization. In fact, research supports that vicarious discrimination has negative effects on mental health.5
How to Navigate the Current Climate
It’s important during such a frightening time to take practical steps for your own safety. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) provides a list of practical resources for people who feel they are at risk: https://www.aclu.org/feature/feel-at-risk.
Here are six tips that can help you tend to your mental and emotional health while trying to navigate your daily life in our country’s current political climate6.
1. Remember that you are having natural responses to an ongoing challenging situation.
Often we feel worse because we tell ourselves that we should not be feeling the way we do, or we criticize ourselves for being distressed. But trying to change how we feel can often be more upsetting. Take note of your responses, which are likely natural in this situation, and try to be kind and understanding to yourself. Kindness and understanding towards yourself won’t make your responses go away, but this compassion may help you avoid increasing the distress.
2. Take care of your body:
Eat three meals a day, drink water, get as much regular sleep as possible, and try to include some physical activity, even if it is just taking a brief walk. These activities are the first things we compromise when we feel stressed, anxious, afraid, and overwhelmed. So they can be the first good things you add back— taking care of our basic needs leaves us less vulnerable to illness and fatigue. These actions also show ourselves care and compassion.
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3. Consider minimizing media exposure.
This can be hard in an environment where Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all our other social media outlets have become sources of news. We want information, yet we need a balance between staying informed and being bombarded with painful news. If social media exposure is hurting your mental health, think about minimizing what you watch or read and the time you spend online, as well as being more selective of your social media. Prioritize the friends, groups, or sources that offer support, validation, positive ways to cope, and effective ways to resist bigotry, racism, and other hurtful ideology.
4. Be “in the moment.”
It is easy and natural to get distracted with thoughts, fears, and worries during stressful times. So it’s worthwhile to practice gently bringing your attention back to what you are doing at a given moment. Be present when you are listening to a friend, taking care of a task, going for a walk, or actively enjoying an everyday moment such as eating something yummy or seeing a glimpse of a sunset. These are ways of reconnecting to what we feel is important in our lives. Our minds naturally wander so we usually have to bring our attention back to this moment again and again and again, especially when we are distressed.
5. Choose your actions when you can.
Intense emotions naturally lead us to react: Fear and anxiety may lead us to avoid situations, and anger may lead us to confrontation. But there are times when such reactions make us feel out of control. Instead, we can notice what is important and what we care about. Make an effort to do things in line with your personal values, such as calling or texting friends or engaging in social justice activism.
Choosing how to act feels empowering. Any actions that reflect how you want to be, even in small ways, can be helpful. Because it is difficult to choose your actions during stressful and painful situations, you may still react, but it is important to remain kind to yourself when you react naturally and remind yourself that you can try the next time to choose your action.
6. Be around those you love.
Social support is crucial for our overall health and well-being. This is especially important in times of stress, pain, and isolation. Spending time with those you care about can bring feelings of joy, happiness, and connectedness. It can be a great benefit during times of stress to find communities where you can develop a sense of connection because you share values or interests.
If you are in need of professional support, please seek help6. Therapists, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals offer treatment for mental health difficulties. Contact your insurance provider about your policy’s coverage. If you do not have insurance, ask providers if they offer sliding-scale fees or if they can direct you to local settings that provide more affordable treatment. Here are websites useful for finding therapists:
1. https://medium.com/@seanokane/day-1-in-trumps-america-9e4d58381001#.6ksiazgo5 and http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/29/health/school-survey-post-election-negative-incidents/index.html
2. Pascoe, E. A., & Richman, L. (2009). Perceived discrimination and health: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 135(4), 531-554.
3. https://www.splcenter.org/20161129/ten-days-after-harassment-and-intimidation-aftermath-election and https://www.splcenter.org/ and https://ucr.fbi.gov/hate-crime/2015/topic-pages/incidentsandoffenses_final.pdf
5. Harrell, S. P. (2000). A multidimensional conceptualization of racism related stress: Implications for the well–being of people of color. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 70(1), 42-57.
A. Pieterse and S. Powell. A Theoretical Overview of the Impact of Racism on People of Color. In A. Alvarez et al., eds. The Cost of Racism for People of Color: Contextualizing Experiences of Discrimination. American Psychological Association, 2016, p. 11. doi: 10.1037/14852-002.