Back in February, an annual survey by the American Psychological Association found that 57 percent of Americans — Democrats and Republicans alike — said they considered the nation’s political climate a significant source of stress.
Also, it reported “the first significant increase” in the overall average stress level among Americans since the survey began 10 years ago, based on responses from last August to January.
Since then, there’s been little reason to think those stress levels have been alleviated. “At the individual level, there is absolutely greater collective distress regarding our country, the presidency, and the future [right now],” said Dr. Josh Klapow, a clinical psychologist and co-host of radio show “The Web.”
“This ranges from [Donald] Trump supporters concerned that the country is not united behind the presidency, to those who believe the president is taking the country down an ill-advised path,” he said.
The source of much of this collective unrest is change.
“Changes in how our government is run, changes between individuals and their beliefs, and the interpretation of what those changes mean” can all play a role in contributing to anxiety, Klapow said.
Additionally, social media and the 24-hour news cycle have made it easier than ever to be an omnivorous consumer of information, obsessively gathering facts and opinions until you feel increasingly frustrated and helpless.
The good news is that it’s possible to manage your stress around politics without deleting your social media apps or escaping to a remote island. Follow these six practical strategies to find a healthy balance between staying informed and staying sane:
1. Identify your triggers
“Chart out how much time you spend reading, listening, watching, and engaging in political rhetoric,” Klapow advised. Do you check every news update that lands in your inbox? Spend all your stolen minutes reading articles on Facebook? Watch the evening news for three hours after work?
Unless you’re a media personality, politician, or policy maker, Klapow said spending more than a couple hours a day immersed in politics can throw you off balance. Instead of tuning in on autopilot, stop and pay attention to how and when you’re engaging in politics. Analyzing your habits can help you pinpoint your primary source of stress and develop a plan to ease it.
2. Be proactive
If you’re concerned or upset about a particular political decision or movement, find a way to get involved outside your online bubble.
“Responding to a Facebook post or tweet does little to no good, other than to vent your feelings,” Klapow said. Instead, “it often provokes further arguments that are fueled by miscommunication and misunderstanding.”
Feel free to share an article or tweet an important message, but once you do, get offline and look for concrete ways you can contribute to your community and the causes that matter to you.
Call your representatives and senators to voice your opinion on hot-button issues, volunteer with local organizations, raise awareness about a specific event by speaking at your city council meeting, donate money to an organization whose work you value, or start a community support group for like-minded people.
“This is a deeper level of engagement that will allow you to be involved without being pulled into a communication battle,” Klapow said.
3. Seek out multiple news sources
“The more we gravitate to one news source, the more our inherent biases will be strengthened, and the less likely we are to see the perspectives of others,” Klapow said. That’s why it’s crucial to explore the world outside your own echo chamber; when you seek to understand people whose values and beliefs differ from yours, you can help dissipate the tension and conflict that stems from political opposition.
That doesn’t mean you need to devote extra time to participating in politics, though. Just switch up your current routine: tune in to a different nightly news channel once a week, subscribe to multiple news outlets, or make a point to read about controversial political developments from two different, unaffiliated publications.
4. Narrow your focus
When you feel overwhelmed by the abstract, uncertain world of politics, it’s helpful to redirect your attention to something immediate and tangible. ”[Remind] yourself of what is critical to your day-to-day living and well-being,” Klapow said. “A sound-bite, news headline, interview, or tweet likely does not immediately drive how you do your job, treat your co-workers, parent, or contribute to your family and community.”
To refocus your energy and gain a sense of control over your surroundings, Klapow suggested asking yourself this question: What can I do today to improve the day for myself, my family, my friends, and my community? Come up with an answer — whether it’s signing up for a local march, bringing breakfast to the office for your co-workers, or spending time with loved ones — then carry it out.
5. Establish politics-free zones
“Politics is dominating our environment right now,” Klapow said. “It’s up to you to create a steady state,” and to “be informed but well-rounded,” he added.
To do that, it’s smart to establish boundaries for engaging in political rhetoric. Maybe that means disconnecting from social media in the evening, limiting your news catch-up to 20 minutes a day, or enjoying a family dinner free of political discussion or debate.
Though it may occasionally be difficult to disengage, especially if a recent event or decision directly affects you and your loved ones, it’s healthy ― vital, even ―to take breaks from being plugged into the political pulse.
6. Prioritize self-care
You can’t be a proactive, aware citizen, nor can you successfully help others, if you don’t take care of yourself first.
“You may feel as if you are simply dedicated to the cause,” Klapow said, “but the reality is you [cannot] think as clearly if your physical needs, emotional needs, and social needs are not being met.”
For your physical and mental health, make sure to log seven solid hours of sleep a night and to schedule regular exercise, which research shows can help reduce anxiety levels. To boost your emotional well-being, spend quality time with loved ones and devote at least half an hour a day to downtime. Do whatever you find relaxing, whether it’s reading, meditating, watching the sunset or starting a new Netflix series.
The more time you carve out for yourself, the more energized, capable, and motivated you’ll feel to step into battle when it matters.