How to Keep Today's Political Climate From Affecting Your Mental Health
We live in a country where school shootings have become commonplace—and lack of action from government legislation is not only consistent but expected. Our president hate-tweets about public service officials, integral media resources, other countries, and liberal ideals. Access to sexual and reproductive healthcare is up for debate. Equal rights for anyone who doesn't identify as straight (or white) is "controversial." This is a frightening moment in history.
In times of turmoil, whether it be frustrations with the political landscape or smaller, more intimate moments in my life, my anxiety tends to take over. And it's not just me: Anxiety is one of the most common disorders in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults (18.1% of the population) every year. I worry about what I've said, what I've done, and what might happen in the case of a natural disaster, terrorist attack, or sexual assault. "All of this stresses our system, and the brain and body should return to normal levels once the stressor is over, but if the stressor is constant, you'll find yourself in a heightened state all of the time," explains Scott Dehorty, LCSW-C, executive director at Maryland House Detox, Delphi Behavioral Health Group of those spiral-prone feelings. And with such immense time spent wrapped up in my own magnified anxieties, taking care of myself became less of a priority. Or, I should say, it used to.
I'd let my bedroom become a mess—piling clothes on top of clothes without a thought. I'd stay out late to blow off steam and forget that restful sleep is a far healthier option. I'd drink beer and eat fried foods with abandon and scoff at the idea of exercise. "I'm fun," I'd tell myself. The truth is that I was drowning.
It wasn't until Trump took office and activism became more a part of my consciousness that I realized self-love could be part of my resistance. If he wasn't going to look out for me, then I'd have to work harder at doing it for myself. If I was going to pay massive premiums for health insurance and fight for control over my own body, I'd have to start taking my physical health more seriously. And since censorship, climate change, and gun violence are real and are threats to my very existence, looking after my mental health is imperative as well. So where to start? I spoke to a few experts for actionable suggestions to dealing with anxiety and learning wellness and self-love all over again.
"The first, and perhaps most important, thing to do is breathe," says Dehorty. "It sounds simple and it is, but it is essential. When we become stressed, our breathing becomes shallow, and this sends a feedback loop to our brain that we are anxious—increasing our anxiety. Long, deep breaths are calming and cleansing, but they also send the feedback to our brain that everything is all right. Take a break. Go outside, walk around, or change the scenery. Allow your brain the opportunity to relax. We are more productive and effective this way. Do one thing at a time. The research is in, and it is conclusive—multitasking is ineffective. Do one task at a time and do it well. Trying to do too many things at once creates anxiety and leads to poor performance. Take inventory. Am I doing what I want to be doing? If not, what do I need to do to change? If so, how can I be the best at what I do? Put your anxieties into perspective."
2. Realize taking care of yourself is not "uncool"
Somewhere between my emotional and restrictive past with food and now, recovery turned into contempt. I ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and thought healthy eating practices and working out were, for lack of a better word, lame. I had spent so much time and energy feeling anxious and triggered around food that I decided to live the polar opposite. The thing is that part of taking care of yourself (and, ultimately, loving yourself) is the realization that proper nutrition is not propaganda. The same goes for working out and prioritizing sleep. "The three building blocks to healthy living are nutrition, exercise, and sleep," says Dehorty. "We need to feed ourselves the right foods at the right intervals, get the right amount of movement required in a day, and practice good sleep hygiene. These practices do wonders for positive mental health."
In fact, there are so many reasons to exercise that have nothing to do with patriarchal beauty standards. And going to bed early doesn't mean you're not a good time. It means you care about your regulating your stress and energy levels, hormones, appetite, cognitive function, libido, and caring for your skin. That and your career come morning.
I've written a lot about loathing workouts and loving food in the past. But it's important to me that it's clear that neither one comes easily for me. It's not uncool to work hard for your body or to take care of your health. Ultimately, it's imperative to do what makes you feel good. Dehorty also suggests laughing, socializing, and getting outside as ways to ease anxiety and feel healthy and whole.
3. Have sex
Because the current government is blatantly steeped in a disappointing blend of misogyny and privilege, female empowerment and intersectional feminism stand at the forefront of my media consumption. Somehow along the way, all the victim-blaming, woman-hating nonsense created a space inside me that allowed for a freer, more comfortable sex life. Having to defend the right to ownership over my own body and decisions for that body led me to also consider my right to exercise my sexuality in any way I please—that means wearing what I want, dating whomever I want, and no longer relying on conventional dating "rules" to guide my behavior. It's also opened up an otherwise silent conversation about consent. I discuss it on dates, with friends at parties, and with family members.
4. Try to meditate
Sure, as a skeptic, coming around to meditation can be difficult. For a while, it just felt like sitting, and my mind felt anything but calm. However, even if all you're doing is sitting quietly, you're doing it right. Meditation allows for you to gift yourself with stress-free moments during an inevitably stressful day. "Meditation has become an essential tool in today's fast-paced, technology-centric world," says Jeffrey Gladd, MD, a member of Care/of's scientific advisory board. "Being able to press pause in one's day by following a guided meditation or, as one improves, an unguided practice, can lead to optimal health. Without these windows of peace, the potential for stress and stimulation to overwhelm the body is high. Tools like Headspace live at the top of my recommendation list. Having a solid meditation guide in your pocket allows us actually take these moments wherever and whenever we need them most."
5. Seek help
Whether it's going therapy or speaking with a doctor, it's important to be willing to seek professional help in times of need and crisis. "Most of our patterns of behavior are hardwired and may need an objective third party to help us sort through them and promote change," Dehorty explains. It's true—you don't need to bear the weight of your anxiety or other issues—on your own. Finding peace inside yourself is never going to be an easy feat, but it's one that becomes considerably less burdensome with help.