Healthy Living

How Politics Is Changing Conversations Between Therapists And Patients

Anxiety around this issue is a nonpartisan trend.
05/24/2017 12:15pm ET | Updated May 30, 2017
Jonathan Shin/HuffPost

The 2016 election and its aftermath brought unprecedented levels of stress surrounding politics. Just ask therapists.

Mental health experts say the current political climate is coming up with patients during their sessions more than ever before ― and there are no signs of it slowing down.

“Conversations have changed,” Cheryl Gore-Felton, a psychologist at Stanford Health Care, told HuffPost. “The anxiety and worry about the future are not new topics, but what is new is their relationship to politics.”

A poll conducted in January by the American Psychological Association found that two thirds of all Americans feel anxiety over the future of the country. A recent analysis also found that Talkspace, an online counseling resource, saw an increase in users since the election. Reports also show that there was a rise in calls to crisis helplines directly following the results.

Psychologists are colloquially dubbing the anxiety following the presidential race “post-election stress disorder.” And it’s an issue that’s nonpartisan: Clients on both sides of the aisle have expressed their concern, according to Chloe Carmichael, a New York City-based therapist focusing on anxiety and depression.

“There’s a real range of emotions,” Carmichael told HuffPost. “It’s been very anxiety-provoking for a lot of people.”

Differing concerns based on political affiliations

While stress is not a partisan experience in the aftermath of the election, the reasoning behind it anecdotally seems to vary by party.

Carmichael said that she has noticed her patients who are happy with the current leadership ― or at the very least, unfazed ― are worried that gives off the wrong impression when it comes to certain viewpoints, like social issues.

“They’re afraid of being perceived as uneducated, racist or sexist but they don’t identify with those labels at all,” she said. “They’re really conscious of the environment they’re in and so they feel a lot that stress.”

For those who wished for a different presidential outcome, Carmichael says their conversations tend to have fear-based undertones. She noted that these dialogues tend to pop up in sessions more frequently, likely because her practice is based in a liberal city.

The fear-based anxiety she sees is particularly true for people of color and those who feel threatened just based on their identities.

“Some people are really scared because they don’t have any faith in or president,” she said. “That’s a really disorienting place to be.”

“Administrations come and go, but we maintain our family and friends over the course of our life.”

- Cheryl Gore-Felton, psychologist at Stanford Health Care

There’s also a sense of helplessness among patients, according to Carmichael. Those who are still grappling with the current political landscape say that they feel a lack of control, which is a major player in anxiety-related mental health issues. A phrase that commonly comes up for people who are upset with the outcome is, “I wish there was more I could do,” Carmichael said.

One universal issue, however, is the effect of the election on relationships. Patients on both sides of the aisle often discuss the turmoil it has created between them and loved ones or colleagues, Gore-Felton explained.

“Prior to the current administration, I rarely had a patient come into session and discuss the impact an administration is having on their relationships with family and friends,” she said. “People are engaging in tough dialogue in person and on social media. Some people have blocked certain friends and family from their Facebook because the rhetoric was getting so intense.”

What to do if you’re stressed by politics

The constant barrage of the current news cycle can take a toll, regardless of where you align politically. Research shows that constant exposure to negative news can be detrimental to mental health over time.

Gore-Felton recommends limiting discussions about politics on social platforms, particularly if they’re weighing on your relationships. If you need to take the necessary actions to maintain your social connections, then do so.

“Administrations come and go, but we maintain our family and friends over the course of our life,” she explained.

Taking action can also help alleviate some of the anxiety associated with feelings of helplessness, according to Ricks Warren, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan. He suggests volunteering for a cause you care about or donating to a charity that aligns with your values in order to feel like you can exercise some control over the situation.

“There are ways to make a difference and ways you can empower yourself,” he stressed.

And, most importantly, reach out for professional support if you feel overwhelmed or burdened by stress for any reason. Yes, even politics.

As part of May’s Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re focusing on treatment and the stigma around getting help. Check out our coverage here and share your story at strongertogether@huffingtonpost.com.