It’s no secret that we live in an increasingly uncertain world — be it politically, socially, or environmentally speaking. Questions like: “Will my views be represented in Congress?” “Will environmental protection initiatives receive support for my grandchildren?” “Will racial tensions continue to flare and result in more violence?”are but a few many folks find themselves asking on a constant basis.
As a psychologist who specializes in anxiety, I am all too familiar with what it looks like when people don’t know what will come next.
So the question remains: How do we cope during these precarious times?
I find the following four tips to be very effective interventions when treating patients with anxiety. So the next time the news cycle or social media feed has your anxiety levels spiking, consider giving these a try.
Tip 1: Breath-based emotional regulation and meditation
Breathing-based regulation can be helpful in sociopolitical “hot” times. Whether watching the news or feeling anxious while on social media, your breath is always there to help you regulate your natural anxiety (or even anger).
Deep breathing can help induce feelings of safety, though the trick with this method is consistency in practice. Consider practicing for 5 to 10 minutes a day, in addition to whenever you start to feel your anxiety begin to spike.
There are many meditation techniques that can help. To help get you started, though, consider the following steps:
- Lie down or sit in a chair (you can close your eyes if you want).
- Breathe all the way in.
- On the exhale, breathe all the way out. Completing inflation/deflation is very important here.
- Repeat for roughly 5-10 minutes.
- Practice deep breathing throughout the day, as much as you can.
Note: It can help to imagine a balloon inflating and deflating as you run through this breathing exercise.
Tip 2: Learn to take charge of your own self-worth
For folks who come from marginalized communities, it can be easy to let the numerous bigoted sociopolitical messages have an effect on how you view your self-worth. And allowing these messages to affect how you see yourself can lead to anxiety.
While these messages may not stop, you can take charge of your self-worth by learning to speak to yourself with kindness and dignity.
- Notice feelings of shame — thoughts like “I am bad” — as they come up. Are they coming from the misguided opinions of others who don’t actually know or value you? Value only opinions of those who you value.
- Speak kindly to yourself when you’re feeling down, such as: “I know this hurts right now, but this pain does not define me,” or “My intention is to be kind to myself in these difficult moments.”
- Following exposure to negative messages, choose a mantra that you can easily remember. For example, as a Black male, when I begin to feel down following exposure to negative media messages or other racist comments I repeat to myself: “The opinions of racists do not define my worth. I do.”
- Choose an empowering quote from an activist, spiritual leader, or teacher. Read this quote daily and let that quote become the standard for how you move in the world.
In times of sociopolitical agitation and aggression, being kind to yourself is extremely important — this is especially true if you’re from a historically marginalized social group.
Remember, negative talk from others doesn’t define you. You define your self-worth.
Tip 3: Listen with nonreactivity
We are quite reactive listeners, in that we listen to respond rather than listen to understand.
In the age of unchecked bias and echo-chambers on social media, we’re constantly seeking to validate what we already know in order to maintain certainty about the world around us. However, anxiety can spike when we’re met with folks who have different views from our own.
So how do we handle these situations?
The short answer is practicing nonreactive listening. This can be applied to any situation, including when interacting with folks who have different political or social beliefs than ours.
Tips for nonreactive listening
- listen completely, without judgement
- see if their logic makes sense
- if there are holes in their logic or skipped steps, ask follow-up questions
- listen to understand first, respond second
Tip 4: Live according to your values
It’s easy to live according to the values of others in our lives and lose sight of what really matters to you. But being true to your values is important, especially during times of great sociopolitical or environmental stress.
Often my patients will realize their anxiety symptoms are partly a result of living according to society’s values or values of someone in their life, without regarding what they personally care about.
Remember: Living according to values is not goal-oriented, but rather doing things that make you feel good. Instead of saying “this is what I should care about,” figure out what you do care about.
Upon reflection, you may recognize that you want to spend more free time with family and friends, engage in social action or protesting, engage in political discourse or climate change initiatives.
Whatever it is you care about, act in accordance with that. When you keep track of, and live by, your values, you may realize you’ll feel much more at peace.
Living in challenging times doesn’t mean we can’t make small changes to help navigate our anxiety
We live in challenging times, but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t small changes we can make in our lives to help us feel more comfortable with ourselves and our worries about the future.
Rather than letting life happen to us and fixating on what we don’t like, we can take control over how we choose to experience what we don’t like using these practices. Remember, the person who can contribute to your mental health the most is ultimately you.
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Dr. Broderick Sawyer is a clinical psychologist at a group practice, providing empirically-supported treatments for severe trauma, race-based stress and trauma, personality disorders, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, depression, and eating disorders. Dr. Sawyer’s main specialty is race-based stress and trauma, and teaching mindfulness/compassion-based meditation. Dr. Sawyer often provides lectures on a variety of treatment-oriented and race-based topics to a variety of mental health professionals, activists, and academic audiences. He also collaborates with community organizers to find creative solutions to social justice, with a particular focus on the use of mindfulness meditation to strengthen resilience against oppressive stress.