Recently in peer supervision I reflected on how many inquiries I am getting, and, slightly tongue in cheek, said that its November, we have an election, and Brexit, so its probably no surprise people are seeking support for their mental health.
The more I reflect on it the more it feels that the tongue needs to be removed from the cheek, and the impact of the current political situation on mental health be considered thoughtfully, and seriously than some Winnie the Pooh memes might allow.
As a therapist part of my role is to have empathy with the client. Empathy is not reliant on shared experience, it is a process and an active one, which can take processing and reflection. Part of being able to offer the space a client needs is the ability to hold onto my own stuff – to not take up the space myself. Within this it is important that I am politically neutral. I have worked with people with swastika tattoos and Marxists, people who voted leave and remain, and those who have never, and will never vote in any election. Part of doing my job is being able to offer each empathy and unconditional positive regard. If I find it easier to do with some clients than others, that too is food for reflection – and work that needs to be done, so the experience of each is the same.
That, rather long, disclaimer aside it is impossible not to notice the impact of political events currently.
Starting with Brexit, regardless of your views in the debate, we have been living in a limbo for almost three years now. We are on the third “will definitely leave by this date” and anyone who knows anything about anxiety will be aware of the impact of moving, yet intangible threats. I am not even saying Brexit itself is a threat – my view is between me and the ballot box, but anxiety results from not being able to escape the (metaphorical) saber toothed tiger.
When we consider the neuroscience of anxiety and stress we have to remember that we are, fundementally, small mammals hiding from dinosaurs. Our flight/fight/freeze/feign response is designed to stop us being eaten by larger predators. It is controlled by the amygdala and operates at speeds over which the conscious mind has no control. I shall leave for another blog the gendered nature of reducing the 4 responses to fight or flight, for now lets look at whats happening in the brain.
The amygdala has one job, to spot a threat, and respond. Anxiety and stress are the byproducts of the system not being able to remove us from a threat. Running away from a saber toothed tiger may be frightening, but, assuming we escape, we are not anxious or stressed, the system has done its job, the hormones spent, and we can return to the saftey of our burrow.
In the modern world this system is very often responding to threats we can do nothing about. We have to go into work – even if our heart is racing. We have to walk through a busy city with thundering noises – even if our brain wants to shut down (freeze). We have to smile at the creepy man in a bar – even if we feel unsafe (feign). Or, we have to carry on with our lives even though every 6 weeks the news tells us a huge change is coming which we are powerless to do anything about. If brexit had occurred – if we had fled the saber toothed tiger (whether you label that tiger the EU or Brexit) we could return to our burrows. Currently however we are living in perpetual threat, a state our brains are not designed for. This will lead many people to have heightened stress and anxiety, exacerbated by the uncertainty which is telling the amygydala it has to be constantly scanning for new threats. Since we are in uncharted waters, with no previous experience to compare to, our prefrontal cortex cannot step in with reassurance. This may even partially explain why some older people are quite sanguine about Brexit, as they can remember a time when the UK was not in the EU and they were OK. Of course, this rosetinted view of the past doesn’t really apply if you were queer, or non white, or belonged to a number of different marginalized groups. However this is more the realms of sociology that psychology.
So, we have Brexit keeping people in a state of stress and anxiety, another deadline passed and uncertainty, the fuel of anxiety remaining. Usually at this time of year, no matter how wild the weather or dark the days we have December to look forward too. Northern Europeans have been holding festivals around the winter solstice for millennia. It makes sense, at the darkest, grimmest time of year communities come together and give each other hope. I would argue that it is no coincidence that light and greenery are brought into homes as markers of celebration. They are concrete ways of saying this darkness will pass.
Whilst there may be a certain bacchanalian element to some of our forms of celebrating, those old ancient roots are there, as we lock out the darkness and look towards the light. Perhaps people do overcompensate, go into debt, eat and drink to excess, but the switching off of the worries about the mundane is part of how we make it through until our real, or metaphorical spring.
This year, a year when many might need that break from everyday worries even more than usual, instead we have an election called for December 12th. It really is no surprise that I, and so many of my collegues, are busier than we have ever been.
I cannot change the political situation, the time of year, or the national mood. I can however suggest some things which may help those who are struggling right now.
- Ensure your social media has a balance – you may not want to unfollow every political page, but, is there also content which soothes and uplifts? This cartoon may seem extreme, but, do you too need more cat pics in your life?
- Let go of any guilt – This is related to the suggestion above. We often believe we should be well informed, and indeed, educating ourselves on world news, the experiences of others, the policies and beliefs of those in power is important. However all too often social media isnt actually making us more informed, just more anxious. Are there other ways you can ensure you find out what you need to know? Does time spent need to be more structured, remember for many years the news was on twice a day, now it is undated every second.
- Build real community – I mentioned earlier Winnie the Pooh memes. I was particularly thinking of the one which suggests we should be friends with people who hold different political opinions. Diversity is a good thing, I run diversity and inclusion consultancy and training with a number of organisations, so I strongly believe in it. However. no one has to remain in contact with people who believe they are lesser, deserve fewer human rights, or who disparages and disrespects them. We wouldn’t encourage this in romantic and sexual relationships, it is time to stop giving it a pass in platonic ones. Removing toxic people from your life is an act of vital self care. If it feels too unsafe to completely remove them, use those mute tools on social media, and work out strategies for face to face interactions which leave your boundaries intact.
You may be fine right now, which is awesome, but you may have people in your life who are struggling. Sometimes a reminder to yourself, or those you care about, of these steps, can be so helpful. Is there balance? Are toxic people being contained? Are you letting go of guilt about prioritizing your self care and mental well being? Asking yourself these questions might well make the next 2 months a whole lot better and that’s before we even get into surviving Christmas