How to Navigate Political Stress In and Out of Treatment

An American flag hanging outside a home

We’ve watched the polls and scrolled the headlines. We’ve heard the chatter and seen the ads. With our collective breath held, we’ve finally made it to Election Day. The 2020 presidential campaign may be behind us now, but left to linger are intense feelings surrounding the current sociopolitical climate.

No matter how we voted this year, we are sure to process feelings related to this divisive election for a long time to come. Highly politicized issues seem infinite. From the pandemic to race relations and natural disasters to the economy, we continue to witness and live out such issues in our daily lives. For many, the issues are inextricably entwined with our mental and physical health; for some, they’re linked to our very sense of self. Many people carry these intersecting parts of themselves into their relationships, including, more and more, with their healthcare providers.

Below, we’ll cover tips for managing election stress, as well as advice for mitigating political tension that may emerge in a healthcare setting.

Managing Election Stress

Take care of yourself first.

A tried-and-true strategy for handling stress—political or otherwise—is self-care. While we may be unable to control the world around us, we can control our interaction with it.

Some strategies include:

  • Care for your body. Prioritize sleep and rest, adequate nutrition, and gentle movement that serves your recovery.
  • Limit news intake and social media use. Consider suspending or deleting your social media accounts. If you’d rather not cut out these networks entirely, consider allowing yourself an extra pause before engaging with them by logging in and out of the account(s) each time. You might also curate your feeds to highlight those who offer non-political material. Set a limit on when and how much time you’ll spend on social media; before bed is a good time to set aside for some screen-free unwinding.
  • Connect with yourself and others about non-political matters. What issues besides politics are important to you? Be sure to honor these parts of yourself in daily activities and conversations.
  • Practice mindfulness, meditation, or yoga. Increasing mind and body awareness offers many benefits, including effective management of anxiety and depression.
  • Ground yourself in the present moment. Engage your senses by taking a warm bath, for example, or cuddling with a pet, listening to uplifting music, or lighting a scented candle. 

Practice distress tolerance.

Therapeutic skills useful in eating disorder recovery are also appropriate for other uncomfortable and uncertain situations.

Remember coping statements such as:

  • “Having an urge does not mean that I have to do anything about it.”
  • “It’s okay to feel [sad, angry, disappointed, etc.] about this situation. We can accept this moment exactly as it is.”
  • “Our emotions right now are uncomfortable, and we will get through them.”

Use your agency.

It is normal to feel powerless amid a swirling political storm. Find small, actionable ways to exert the power you do have by becoming more politically engaged.

Consider one of the following actions as a starting point:

  • Identify an issue important to you and learn where your representatives stand on it.
  • Volunteer with an organization that benefits your community or addresses issues important to you.
  • Advocate for an issue you care about. Visit The Eating Disorders Coalition to learn more about eating disorders-related initiatives and how you can get involved.

The goal here isn’t necessarily to enact immediate change, but rather to see that there are simple, impactful ways for us to make our voices heard. Doing so attests to the power of an individual voice and may provide a sense of purpose.

How Providers and Clients Can Manage Political Differences

No longer can healthcare providers and clients simply “leave politics at the door” (or on their side of a telehealth screen). Providers have a unique responsibility to validate, respect, and contend with the political intersections of client experiences, holding space for it as it relates to their work together. At the same time, clients can reciprocate respect and tolerance for their provider’s real or perceived political beliefs.

Healthy client-provider relationships are more important than ever as cultural uncertainty and strife continue to exacerbate eating disorder behaviors and thoughts. Here are some ways to manage political differences and mitigate tension during treatment:

Respect the professional relationship.

The antidote to the isolation of an eating disorder is connection. It is in relationships that we both treat and heal from these fierce mental illnesses—and in relationships that we experience political divisiveness on a personal level. Importantly, the quality of professional and personal relationships can significantly affect treatment outcomes for those with eating disorders. 

Meaningful relationships between clients and providers can model what it means to relate to another person in a healthy way, a skill important in recovery and beyond. These relationships demonstrate mutual respect, understanding, and acceptance. What’s more, they show unity between people who may oppose each other politically, a powerful indicator of hope and community as divisiveness seeks to drive us apart.

Avoid relationship-damaging behaviors in any client-provider discussions. Call forth some core components of healthy relationships instead:

  • Set boundaries. Decide if, when, and how much you feel comfortable sharing about your political beliefs. Respond to any questions related to these beliefs in a way that is consistent with your limits.
  • Seek understanding. Approach conversations with an open, curious mind to connect on a level other than politics. Apply similar curiosity when asked questions about your own beliefs (e.g., “How would knowing my political beliefs be helpful for our work together?”).
  • Listen openly while maintaining individuality and authenticity. Offer validation for opposite opinions while maintaining the authentic parts of yourself. We do not need to imply agreement to be active, engaged listeners.

Focus on the lived experiences behind the political issue.

It is not just the topics on which opposing political sides disagree—even facts are up for debate in 2020. Still, the common denominator of each side remains. There is a person behind each vote. And that person has an opportunity to converse and find common ground with someone behind an opposite vote.

While political issues and atmospheres shape our experiences in diverse ways, the deep feelings attached to these experiences are often similar at their core. Behind even the most acrimonious political conversations are common emotions. Worry. Fear. Anxiety. Grief. Concern for those close to us. Weighty, complex feelings are shared by the most polar of political opposites, even if expressed in drastically different ways.

Moving the conversation beyond charged topics to our personal experiences and feelings around them helps to establish a connective thread. Rather than laying out arguments for a given issue, bring back any political comments to the lived experience:

  • “It seems this issue is really affecting you. How is it impacting your [motivation, sleep, ability to concentrate, etc.]?”
  • “I’m curious about how this issue relates to what you told me about [your family dynamics, relationship with your friend, etc.]. What do you think?”
  • “What impact does [watching the polls, scrolling Facebook, etc.] have on your mood?
  • “What was it like to see that [headline, tweet, interview, etc.]”

The goal is not for providers to insert political conversations uninvited, but rather to allow clients to explore any political topics affecting their daily lives. Knowing more about this experience can help providers hold hope for clients, whether it be about recovery or the state of our nation.

Focus on the purpose of care.

A provider’s office is not a place of debate and contention, but rather a place of guided healing. Keep to the purpose of this clinical work and preserve the environment as one of non-judgment, curiosity, and hope. Here clients can freely explore their values and beliefs, and—more importantly for treatment purposes—the impact of political issues on their eating disorder recovery and mental health.

Ask open-ended questions such as:

  • How have my/your eating disorder thoughts, feelings, and behaviors changed amid this election cycle?
  • What additional support might you/I need to protect my mental health or recovery right now (e.g., a scheduled phone call with a friend, a refresher on coping with triggers, a copy of my/your meal plan)?
  • How can we mentally prepare for each outcome and/or delayed results?

We all need a strong mind and body to regulate our emotions and navigate life, its political dimensions included. If the election or current political climate is impacting your or your patient’s thoughts and behaviors around food or body, we recommend professional eating disorder help. Please contact The Emily Program at 1-888-364-5977 or complete our online form to get started.

Tags: , , , ,

The Emily Program Logo