How to Cope: 
Therapists Offer Strategies for Political Stress

Jeff Guenther, MS, LPC on Aug 26, 2018

Illustration by Brandon Hrycyk

Everything is bananas. On a daily basis we are inundated with breaking news regarding politics and current events. Children are locked in cages. Mad men are threatening nuclear war. Russia is spreading fake news. An adult film star is trying to topple the president. Unarmed black people are being killed by police. Republican politicians are looking the other way and democrats can’t seem to get their act together. And on top of all that, you’re trying to deal with the everyday typical life stress that comes with being a human. So not only does it seem like the world is on the brink of blowing up, you also have to deal with work or school stress, relationship issues, family drama and all the other mental health issues that continue to challenge you in your daily life. 

As a therapist, and the creator of the progressive mental health directory, TherapyDen, I talk to a lot of clients that are struggling with political stress. And even though I have a lot of ideas on what clients can do in order to cope with everything, I am constantly looking for more answers. And what might be a healthy way to cope for one person might not work, or even be an option, for another. This is especially true for people of different ethnicities. Last week, I asked the TherapyDen community the question, “How can therapists help clients that are struggling with political anxiety?”  I received a bunch of responses from a lot of really smart mental health professionals (thank you to everyone who took the time to write). Today I want to share some of the best answers that I received from fellow mental health counselors, all of whom are experts in treating the diverse communities they call home.

Validating and self-care

Possibly the least surprising advice I received from many counselors was, first and foremost, the importance of empathizing with and validating their client’s experience of anxiety and stress that is being caused by our political reality. Talking to a professional that can provide a space to honestly share your feelings of worry, rage, fear and anxiety can be incredibly healing. Once the client feels heard, the counselor will often then encourage different types of self-care.

Therapist, Dave Stone, says that “we live in a very unstable and dangerous world right now so for me the key is to validate the fear and the powerlessness clients may be feeling, and then work with the anxiety as to what are the specific issues they feel no control over.” Similarly Jami Turner Young, a licensed clinical social worker from Miami, validates the stress that her clients are feeling and then works to refocus them internally by becoming more aware of their stress level and managing their symptoms.  

Cindi Rivera, a marriage and family therapist from Oakland says, “As a bilingual woman of color therapist, I offer a safe place where clients of all backgrounds can share deeply about their real experiences, sometimes in the comfort of their mother tongue, and have the experience of being heard, understood and not judged. Cindi goes on to say that, “sometimes it helps to simply let them grieve their deepest feelings, hold those feelings, and even grieve with them about the world’s sufferings or their own. I invite the depth of the emotion of their woundedness, and may even shed tears with them.”

Sivie Suckerman, a licensed mental health counselor in Seattle, agrees “validation first and foremost.” She goes on to say that political stress comes up often in her office. She reminds clients that, “what we have control over is the 3 feet around us. How are we engaging in that space? Are we engaging with things that nourish us? That’s my “call to action”. If folks want to engage/take action outside of that space ,then we discuss what feels good for them while also making sure to not overwhelm themselves.”

Matthew Engel, a counselor in San Francisco, validates his clients feelings while also trying to take a step back. Matthew says that he will, “often refer to various times in history during which revolutions led to great change. I also share my belief in an evolving collective consciousness and talk a little about the purging of crisis as a necessary platform for transformation — as is the case in our individual lives, so I put it in context with the client’s growth cycles as well.”

Go do something

While most great therapists spend time validating and promoting self-care with their clients, many therapists these days are encouraging clients to manage their anxiety by getting up and doing something. 

Erin Gilday, a counselor form Portland, Oregon, says, “straight up best thing for anxiety is to take action. Organizing with others in the community on issues you care about helps with anxiety immensely. With the midterms on the horizon, everyone has an opportunity to easily get involved.” 

Katharine Campbell, a therapist in Wilton Manors, Florida, explores the source of stress with her clients. She says, “mostly I find empowering them with action (whatever is realistic in their life) and minimizing constant intake is helpful.” Katherine also practices what she preaches. She’s running for office in her town.

Therapists and counselors who encourage people to do something often see the issue coming down to a feeling of a lack of control. By deciding to actually do something, we can feel as though we have more power and control, which can create feelings of relief and a new sense of purpose and meaning. 

Jessica Eiseman, a licensed professional counselor in Houston, feels that, “a lot of the anxiety of the political climate is rooted in feeling a lack of control. I say to my clients that in all the chaos and uncertainty and feelings of helplessness it can be helpful to focus on what you can control and the impact you can make in your every day. For example, how you treat and interact with others, how you impact your job, volunteering for causes that you are passionate about or donating money to a cause that may promote change on a larger scale.”

Cindi Rivera encourages putting small acts of kindness into the universe, or sending good will to yourself, to loved ones, to difficult people, to acquaintances, to strangers, and then to enemies, if possible.

Limit the news

While limiting the constant barrage of news and information may sound like an obvious choice to lessen your political anxiety, it’s something that is rarely practiced. It’s hard to turn away when everything feels so dire and urgent. Not to mention that the drama of it all feels addictive, which can make taking a break from the action a really hard thing to do. None the less, possibly the most common feedback I received from therapists was to take a break and turn it off. 

Dora Ann, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Concord, California, recently treated a client that was suffering from a lot of political anxiety. She says that her client, “was watching the news 3 times a day and reading several newspapers. I had him put it all away for a week. No news. Then go to one paper and one news channel. With the rest of his time he goes for a walk or meditates and thinks about what he personally can do to effect change, rather than change effecting him.” Dora says that after a month of this routine, his anxiety level has gone way down.

With my clients, I have also seen a lot of success when they decide to limit their news intake. However, a common feeling that accompanies turning off the news is the feeling of guilt. Guilt can come from deliberately avoiding something that feels really important. Guilt can be caused by turning off the TV during a news story about separating immigrant children from their parents and locking them in cages. What if they were your children? Are you turning off the TV because it’s too hard for you to watch? While that might be good self-care, it also could be feelings of guilt over the privilege that you’re experiencing. While you can simply switch the channel, the parents and children who have been separated for weeks or months don’t have the ability to flip a switch so that they don’t have to experience the devastating situation that they find themselves in. Which brings us to your our next topic. 

Treating political anxiety with clients of color

Our political reality effects people of color differently than white people. And therapists are keenly aware of this. Because of this, therapists need to adjust how they talk and relate to non-white clients. 

Tamara Suttle, a licensed professional counselor in Castle Rock, Colorado, says, “to collude with the silence and to simply look the other way does nothing to help clients who are already disempowered by the systems and government that put them there.” She reminds us that, “only people in power have the luxury of doing nothing and waiting it out; those who are marginalized and are already disadvantaged i.e. those who are disabled, those who are People of Color, those whose families or genders do not fit the "traditional" definitions, those who have immigrated here or identify with faith practices that do not reflect Christianity cannot afford physically, financially, mentally or spiritually to sit by and wait quietly.” When Tamara is in session with a client of color, she will talk about their feelings regarding our political reality and how to deal with it by coming up with ways to execute a plan in whatever way they deem useful. She states that her clients of color have, “waited long enough for white people like me to recognize our roles in colluding with their oppression so that we could ‘help them out’ and ‘rescue' them. Waiting for the guy in the White House or the guy next door to figure it out isn't working for my clients any more; I'm pretty sure it never did.”

Many white therapists are now taking steps to become more aware of the experience of people of color. Especially during these politically turbulent times, ethically and professionally, it’s important that therapists only take on clients that they can competently serve. And it is pushing more white therapists to study and attend educational events that will help them understand and counsel clients of color that are feeling anxious and fearful in the world today.

Lisa Fladager, a licensed mental health counselor in Seattle, believes that being white, she has a mandate to educate herself about the experiences of persons of color. Lisa says, “As a white therapist I feel it’s imperative to educate myself about my own white fragility, institutional racism, and to never assume I know what the experience of a person of color is or think that my whiteness isn’t impacting the treatment. I get clinical supervision from clinicians of color about doing therapy with whatever non-white person I’m working with. It’s also bigger than what happens in the consulting room, it’s about the way I’m trying to live my life.”

Kristen Martinez, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Whittier, California says that therapists need to be culturally humble and never assume anything. Therapists should explore why the political climate is so stressful with clients of color. She says that encouraging a client to take action could be a biased move.

To wrap up this session…

I want to end with the words of Cindi Rivera, the therapist from Oakland. She offers advice directly to the resistance:

“Those of us who are resisting must take great care to not get stuck in the bitter rage and divisiveness and negative thinking of the times, or we become part of the problem and no better than those we are angry with. We must care well for ourselves, so we can continue the struggle. I remind people that often turbulence comes just before the true transformation that occurs. I offer hope that things will change for the better.” 

Jeff Guenther is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Portland, OR.

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