Although a deal was struck last week to avoid another government shutdown, our country faces an uphill battle to recover from the 35-day closure that left hundreds of thousands of federal employees without a paycheck or clear sense of job stability.
The FDA, for example, is working through a backlog of applications for new drugs. The Congressional Budget Office has acknowledged that $3 billion of the $11 billion cost to the US economy won’t be recovered. The head of NASA has admitted that the agency can’t just pick up where it left off.
One overlooked consequence of the shutdown is the toll it exacts on people’s mental health. Even with government employees receiving back-pay, the stress and anxiety caused by the shutdown won’t fade overnight. For many, these negative feelings and emotions will persist into the future, affecting everything from job performance to relationships to physical health.
To have any chance of addressing this anxiety, we first need to understand what drives it.
From a neurological perspective, chaotic events like the shutdown cause uncertainty, which in turn causes anxiety. Our brains are designed to make predictions about the future. Good predictions come from having accurate and stable information. But when we’re robbed of certainty, our brains instead make bad predictions, making it harder and harder for us to function. This leads to a negative spiral that causes even worse predictions, and so on. Our brain freezes up and we get stuck.
The looming threat of another shutdown these past few weeks piled more uncertainty onto government workers still coping with what came before. Just like patients I treat for anxiety, they experienced a “waiting-for-the-shoe-to-drop” feeling they couldn’t shake off.
I can’t pretend to have a solution for government gridlock. The best way to remove this cause of anxiety is to stop government shutdowns from happening in the first place, but that’s a job for Washington. However, having spent my career researching behavior change and treating patients with anxiety, I can offer a few practical methods for government employees and contractors – and their family members and friends – to help cope with stress and uncertainty.
As obvious as it may seem, the first step is to acknowledge what’s outside your control. I tell my patients to bring awareness into moments when they’re attempting to change something they can’t fix – like the government shutdown. We should recognize that anxieties are there (and that they’re normal) but also acknowledge them for what they are: thoughts and feelings.
Additionally, science tells us that when we’re stressed, our brain doesn’t work properly. The prefrontal cortex – the part of our brain that’s key to making logical decisions – actually goes offline when we get stressed or anxious. If you feel stuck when trying to make day-to-day decisions, take some time – even if it’s just a good night sleep – to let your mind settle. Curiosity about feelings of anxiety can also help you understand that often these are simply sensations that come and go over time. Be present with the feelings; let them air instead of burying them or trying to push them away.
Lastly, be kind to yourself. Go for a walk. Start your day by grounding yourself with 10 minutes of meditation or connecting with family and friends. Although this may be an anxious time, try to carve out moments to take care of yourself. When you notice moments of joy, savor these so you can recall them to anchor you when the seas of life get rough.
The government shutdown has caused – and will continue to cause – significant financial and policy challenges. But we all have a role to play in talking about the mental health implications, too, and more importantly, supporting those who are still being affected.
Our tumultuous political times will continue to fuel uncertainty and anxiety, but there are important steps we can take to mitigate the impacts. We can better understand our own psychology to arm us with the knowledge and context to better confront anxiety. We can also develop more practical and accessible tools for folks who struggle with mental health challenges, shutdown-related or not.
Lastly, mental health should be a public health priority, supported by strong policies and government resources. The current administration’s proposal to reduce funding for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s programs by more than $600 million would be a major setback for countless Americans in need of proper treatment and care. Instead, let’s support the people, policies and programs fighting to address mental health challenges and make times of uncertainty less likely to cause anxiety.
If you’re looking for support, here are some helpful resources:
Jud Brewer MD, PhD is the Director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness Center and associate professor in psychiatry at the School of Medicine at Brown University. He also is a research affiliate at MIT. Dr. Brewer has developed and tested novel mindfulness programs for habit change, and founded MindSciences to move his discoveries of clinical evidence behind mindfulness for anxiety, eating, smoking and other behavior change into the hands of consumers (www.goeatrightnow.com, www.unwindinganxiety.com, www.cravingtoquit.com). He is the author of The Craving Mind: from cigarettes to smartphones to love, why we get hooked and how we can break bad habits (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017). Follow him on Twitter: @JudBrewer.
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