Anxiety is Giving You an Anxiety Attack
A magazine journalist dialed my number recently and asked me this question, “From your experience as the director of a mental health practice, is Donald Trump causing more anxiety attacks?”
Before I tell you why I made the case against her conflation of Donald Trump and anxiety attacks, let me tell you that, in fact, we have seen anxiety spike among our clients in the Washington, DC area.
There’s been lots of hand-wringing, especially among the huge numbers of bureaucrats living in the nation’s capital. Some career government employees are wrestling with the thorny question of whether to end a stable career in government and find work in the private sector, or stick it out and live through what many people expect to be leaner years for the federal bureaucracy.
A friend of mine who is a senior official within a major federal department said her boss somewhat seriously floated the so-called Star Wars strategy to help boost the morale of his senior staff. This was a week after The Force Awakens came out in theatres. In the film, a rebel engineer is forced to work for the dark side to design the Death Star. He complies, but not before also designing a secret flaw in the structure that allows it to be easily sabotaged.
Are some government employees are using the fantasy of sabotage of the Trump administration to cope with their anxiety, if they decide to stay in their jobs? Perhaps. But what about the average citizen who reads the news and views the changes that Trump is ushering into America as the apocalypse? Does the rise in anxiety symptoms that our practice has seen in the months following the election of Donald Trump mean that Trump is causing America to have a collective anxiety attack?
I don’t think so.
Other people can't give you anxiety
You might think I’m just splitting hairs to say that someone who is having a bona-fide, emergency-room-
visit-necessary anxiety attack—triggered by watching CNN footage of Sean Spicer comparing Hitler to Bashar al-Assad—isn’t having a Trump-induced anxiety attack. But the cure for anxiety attacks is diametrically opposite of assigning blame. In fact, one of the most effective forms of treatment for anxiety is mindfulness, a set of skills based on increasing awareness, tolerance, and acceptance of what is happening in your body—or in your environment.
Focusing more on Donald Trump—or any other trigger of your anxiety—will only make you more anxious. A more effective strategy to deal with anxiety is to focus more on the physical sensations in your body than on the constant thinking and meaning-making of the cerebral cortex, and ride out the discomfort.
Acceptance of What You Can’t Control Doesn’t Make You Weak
As more than one wise psychologist has observed many times over the years, most of the causes of mental illness can be condensed into one singular theme—the inability to accept what you cannot control.
Acceptance doesn’t mean you fall in love with Donald Trump’s policies. It means you stop over-reacting to it and you channel your energy into something productive. It means you set limits on what you ingest until you have a way to metabolize the nuances of difficult information you disagree with.
When couples are on the brink of divorce and feel hatred for each other, we help them burn off that negative and often violent energy—not by trying to dive into solving the problems right away—but by helping them learn how to cool off and approach the problem more efficiently. We help them find less direct, more rewarding, angles to use in how they are thinking about the problem.
Make America Sane Again
If you think Donald Trump is causing your anxiety, I suggest that you take time off from the news. Go on a Facebook diet. Your friends will forgive you. Instagram won’t cancel your account if you don’t see the #photooftheday today. Use that time instead to get hooked on the big biological powerhouses of pleasure like nature, playing with children, or physical activity.
I think you’ll find that you have more control than you might think over your feelings. If Donald Trump’s latest tweet about immigrants is driving you crazy, don’t give him the power to make you panic. Only you have that power. Remembering this should help you a lot. It might even make America Sane Again.
Keith Miller is author of 10 Myths About the Emotionally Unavailable Man and 21-Day Marriage Transformation: The SIMPLE Antidote to Relationship Conflict and Negativity. He is also the director of a counseling practice in Washington, DC and Bethesda, MD.