The longer you live in a negative anxious state, the harder it can be to break the cycle. Here’s how to stay strong for the fight
From scientists to dreamers, many Americans are living in a state of heightened uncertainty about what the President-elect will do next. Will he pick a Twitter fight with one of our country’s enemies? Abandon the globe to the ravages of climate change? Set women’s rights back more than 40 years? Though it’s totally valid to be concerned about what’s coming once Trump takes office in January, waking up each day anticipating disaster is one of the worst things you can do for your health. Luckily, neuroresearchers and psychologists have found a number of solutions to better channel, or even partially eliminate, your worries.
A certain amount of negative anticipation is normal, and usually fleeting—your dread of the dentist, or fear of a tax audit, for example. But “persistent psychological distress can have a negative effect on our physical health, weakening the immune system and leaving individuals more vulnerable to illness,” says Marla Diebler, a clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia.
Authors of a study published in the journal Behavior Research and Therapy found that “repetitive negative thinking” or RNT, “may be a critical factor in the development and maintenance of psychiatric symptoms and disorders. In the form of rumination, RNT has been shown to prospectively predict the onset of depressive episodes.” It’s also been linked to the maintenance of post-traumatic stress symptoms over time, and predicts poorer sleep quality in undergraduates, even after accounting for symptoms of anxiety and depression.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]After the election, the stress of continual fear on my body has left me exhausted and in far more physical pain than usual.[/quote]
Self-described queer feminist writer Jessica Grey has felt especially vulnerable to negative thinking since the election, as though she’s been “wading through this overwhelming existential dread while watching Trump’s cabinet appointments “take shape around racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homo- and trans-antagonism, loathing of poor people, and a complete lack of regard for freedom of religion, unless that religion is Christianity.” For Grey, who suffers from an enduring chronic illness, it’s especially hard on her physiology. “The stress of continual fear on my body has left me exhausted and in far more physical pain than usual.”
The longer you live in a negative anxious state, the harder it can be to break the cycle, which is a good impetus to step away from source of your negativity as often as you can. “With the repetition of negative anticipation, you actually strengthen your neural pathways to prompt you to do more of this, potentially leading to a chronic mental pattern of anxiety,” Joseph Sanok, a licensed counselor in Michigan says. This then leads to a cascade of other physiological systems that are triggered by the stress of anxiety. According to neuropsychiatrist Jon Lieff, M.D., who pens the blog Searching for the Mind, negative anticipation “can increase your heart rate and stress your heart over time. You affect the gastroenterological and intestinal systems that affect digestion and can create stomach problems.” You can also become prone to breathing issues, such as hyperventilation, and muscular tension.
These symptoms are familiar to Laura Atkins, a California editor and children’s book author, who says she felt “mentally ill after the election.” She found it hard to focus, experienced random events of shortness of breath and panic, loss of libido and her general optimism took a hit. Even today, “it seems like a nightmare that I keep waking up to,” she says.
Of course, while we can’t control the future, there are ways to work with negative anticipation so it doesn’t eat you alive. Psychiatrist Sarah Hartselle, an assistant professor at Brown University, says “we do notice that the brain changes as people become more aware and have moments in their day where they’re present.” She’s fond of meditation apps like Headspace and Calm.com for anyone who wants to start simple.
Diebler recommends mindfulness training to those struggling with negative uncertainty—whether one accesses professional courses or not, the goal of picking up these methods is to help “individuals learn to be in the moment, fully, without judgment or acting upon their internal experience,” adding that it “can help reduce the likelihood of getting caught up in anticipatory anxiety.”
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]The brain changes as people become more aware and have moments in their day where they’re present.[/quote]
A study in the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research, which set out to find out whether mindfulness could help reduce the cognitive impact of negative thoughts, found that individuals who report a greater level of mindfulness “experience negative thoughts less frequently than do those who report a lower level of dispositional mindfulness.” This is not to say that mindfulness removes negative thoughts, but rather that “the quality of their experience with their negative automatic thoughts may be different from that of individuals who are lower in dispositional mindfulness.”
Additionally, if your negative uncertainty comes from something less global and persistent than the U.S. presidential election, Lieff reassures that “often the anticipation is worse than the event itself.”
Most important, while it’s important to stay connected to current events, if it’s causing you too much anxiety, Hartselle recommends you take a close look at whether your activities—especially reading the news—increase or decrease your suffering. “If it’s not helping,” she says, “it’s time to take a break.”
Tiffany Pace, a writer in Las Vegas, for whom the big picture feels “dark,” says that her uncertain feelings about a Trump future has had the effect of making the positive details in her life “more vivid.” She says, “I find myself squeezing more joy out of the little things, like spending time with friends, having an amazing meal, or even snuggling with the cat.”
Though it may be tempting, especially if you’re feeling low, to brush off such acts of self-care as selfish or lazy, staying healthy may be one of the best ways to resist. Attending protests, calling your representatives, or writing the electors takes patience and energy. If you don’t recharge, you may find yourself someday soon giving into the fear.