Taking Care of Our Emotional Health During this Political Climate
By Dr. Masuma Rasheed
As Azra Siddiqi says, “Give a hoot!” We as a society are trying to understand the aftermath of the recent elections – how did we get here and where does this leave us? As a South Asian, second generation American; I am highly aware of the cloud of political tension in the air. I am constantly “in the know” thanks to twenty-four hour news cycles, Internet, social media, and my many WhatsApp groups - all of which occupy my time and energy throughout the day. One might say that being informed of the world around us is our responsibility. So let me ask you this, how informed are you about your emotional health when you receive all this news?
As this political climate tries to highjack our emotions, we must be diligent to stay self-aware of our mind and body in order to prevent burn out. During our course through life, we ideally want to stay in a balanced state of being; and when we get off course, we need tools to navigate us back.
For example, if I am driving on the highway and someone swerves into my lane, I may automatically feel fear or anxiety. My heart may pound and my palms might get sweaty. Then, as I witness the car swerve back into its lane, I may look around and realize that I am safe and unharmed. After I have assessed the termination of threat, then I might shift back to a more balanced mode. The problem would be if the car continued to swerve into my lane every few minutes; thus, jolting me back into a high threat atmosphere the majority of my time on the road. After duration of time, my mind and body will have created a new baseline for my emotions and this “heightened sense of distress” would become my norm. I might get so familiar with this way of being that I start to dismiss any warning signs that I need to re-set and shift back to a more balance state.
I just described many of our experiences during this election and post-election time. We have experienced an intense amount of distress coming at us in different waves, which has led us to forget to attend to our emotional well-being. This election has brought on intense stress for half of America and if we continue to push away our thoughts and feelings or guard them with anger, then it will lead to our own emotional self-destruction. There is a considerable amount of negative energy in the air right now; every time you turn around there is another political story or headline that can send you into a state of panic. This type of energy in every sense of the word is called a trauma; a trauma on our physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive functioning.
I will detail these four main constructs that affect self-care. I will describe how to be aware if one of the constructs is impaired and provide tips on how to help manage this distress.
The following are symptoms of a physical reaction to a trauma:
· Sleep disturbances
· Changes in appetite
· Upset stomach
· Muscle tension
· Sexual dysfunction
You may be experiencing the symptoms above on such a chronic basis and have become so accustomed to them that you may dismiss the fact that these are symptoms of something deeper going on. While many of us may turn to medication to help lessen these physical symptoms, I would strongly recommend breathing exercises. Research suggests that breathing techniques can lessen 80% of the brain’s subjective response to pain to perhaps 60% or 40%.
The diaphragmatic breath is an easy and realistic breath work to learn and implement when in any kind of stress. To try it out, simply do the following:
· Take a deep breath in through your nostrils while, at the same time, expanding your belly like a balloon.
· Then, without pausing, go straight into the exhale while bringing your belly back to neutral.
· Repeat the inhalation and exhalation in this manner and over time you will notice the negative energy stored in your body will start to slowly release and you will feel lighter and more grounded.
We may feel that we cannot change the challenges facing our nation right now; however, we can manage how we release that energy from our bodies.
How often do you check in with yourself to identify your emotions and then engage in coping tools to manage any distressful feelings? As South Asian Americans, sometimes identifying what we are feeling doesn’t come easy to us. Culturally, we have often been conditioned to suppress emotions and encouraged to instead immediately re-direct our focus to a plan of action.
Although an action plan is necessary to some degree, where do all of those feelings go if they aren’t able to release? We have to feel emotion in order to free it. If we don’t let our emotions release in healthy ways, then these feelings can build up and then later erupt latterly; meaning they will come out as impulsive and uncontrollable agitation, anger or frustration. These unpleasant feelings will end up exposing themselves, but in a way that is less manageable and can be hurtful to your relationship with yourself and those around you. Listed below are some traits to be mindful of when reaching burn out:
· Feeling overwhelmed
· Emotionally drained
· Feeling angry and agitated most of the day
· Easily emotional or “Low Affect” (i.e., feeling numb)
All of these symptoms can lead us to suffer emotionally.
During these politically uncertain times, it is important to seek support from a professional to actively work towards strengthening our emotional health and methods of coping. There is a misconception regarding who might seek counseling services. Usually people believe that one must be in a crisis and/or feel massive devastation to visit a professional. However, the reality is quite to the contrary - counseling is a helpful resource for preventative and proactive measures. If you had a cold then would you wait for it to turn into pneumonia before visiting the doctor? Or would you consult a doctor while the symptoms were not as severe in order to manage it from worsening? This same concept applies to our emotional health. In counseling you will learn practical methods to cope with the negative energy surrounding you.
I know that when I have the desire to isolate, then that is a cue that my mind and body is defending itself against a reaction to a trauma. I also know that when I want to binge watch a show on Netflix, and get an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach when I have to turn it off, something is bothering me that needs to be addressed. At that time, I began to examine and scan the events in my life and how they have impacted me. Keep in mind that sometimes we need that down-time either to withdraw or dive ourselves into a movie or book. However, it’s when we sink into these behaviors for a long period of time and when it starts to impact our daily functioning that we want to be concerned. A few more symptoms of behavioral changes that occur when we feel burn out are as follows:
· Mood swings
· Irritability or restlessness
· Being overly cautious
· Overindulgence in a pleasurable activity and/or restriction of a pleasurable activity
When the symptoms listed above surface, it is helpful to try to address your behavioral state. Right now, in this unsettling political atmosphere, we want to differentiate between whether we are engaging in behaviors that are coping exercises or defense mechanisms. Coping tools are used to work through a problem whereas defense mechanisms are used to create barriers or blocks between you and the problem.
To help distinguish the two behaviors, it can be helpful to reflect on your reactions after watching a clip of Trump or one of his supporters. Did you feel agitated and snap at your partner or children? Did you toss and turn at night and as a result take a sleeping aid more than a few times a week? When assessing these behaviors, you might notice that these are defense mechanisms as they help you to mask the problem. A coping tool instead might be to assess how you are feeling after watching the news and because emotion is energy in motion then engage in an activity that activates the five senses (sight, touch, smell, sound, taste). Activities might include yoga, music, nature, a hot shower, walking more often (i.e. stairs vs. elevator), playing with kinetic sand, or fresh candle aroma. Assess how you feel after utilizing a coping tool so you can began to recognize which ones work best for you. You will feel more motivated to access a coping tool if you enjoy it.
How often do you lay down at night to go to bed and that’s exactly when your mind opens the doors for any and all thoughts to come flooding in? During the day, our fast-paced routines can force us to be present and in the moment. However, when we are finally at rest, then all those thoughts can come crashing in. Some of these cognitive symptoms might include:
· Rumination of thoughts
· Decreased concentration
· Distressful dreams
Sometimes the procreation of thoughts can become so proliferate that they end up taking over our mind leaving us with little to no control with the overflow of contemplation. Some helpful tools to combat these cognitive stressors are practicing exercises linked to surrender. When we hold on to a thought or feeling then we are allowing it to have power over us. Therefore, sometimes while learning something stressful about the world around us, it is helpful to do the following:
· Take a deep breath in and imagine all the information you just heard
· Then as you exhale, imagine attaching all that energy to your breath and blow out.
· It is almost as though you are taking that energy outward and up to something bigger than yourself to handle all the pain.
This technique will not minimize the harm and fear of our future; however, it will help us remember to surrender that of which we cannot control while working towards what we can.
I’ll leave you with the serenity prayer:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference, today.
Attending to these four constructs is just a small step towards your own emotional health during this time in our nation. Consider counseling as an option for you and your family during this trying time in order to dive deeper into each part of your self-care. We must find ourselves emotionally healthy and strong in order to positively address what lies ahead. So, remember this the next time you read an article or see a post on social media about our political climate - ask yourself the infamous therapist question “how do I feel about this?” and give a ‘hoot’ about your emotional health.
Masuma Rasheed, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist, registered yoga teacher, and LifeForce Yoga Practitioner which certifies her to combine yoga practice and psychology together; thus, allowing the combination of the mind and body in the therapeutic healing process. Dr. Rasheed advocates for counseling for all those around her. She believes that in counseling you will learn ways to become aware, feel connected, maintain balance and create meaning for yourself in the midst of all the chaos around us and that we cannot control. She believes learning coping tools from experts in the field of mental health will enhance your daily functioning and way of life. Dr. Rasheed currently works as a psychotherapist in Chicago at Studio for Change (www.studioforchange.com).