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Political Burnout: When Politics Makes You (Poli)Sick.

Understanding and managing stress related to a turbulent political climate.

Photo Credit: Tim Gouw for Pexels

Did you wake up after the midterm elections immediately feel relief that you won’t see campaign ads on TV? Are you excited for bills because they aren’t campaign fliers? Are you noticing that when you turn on your TV or open social media you feel instant regret because a majority of what you’re reading is political and highly anxiety-provoking? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you may be experiencing political burnout. You’re not alone. High profile topics that come up in political campaigns can and often do evoke strong emotions. It’s not surprising that we would begin to see an increase in these symptoms during highly-charged election cycles.

In my clinical work I have seen various politically-themed issues come up for clients. They are voicing anxiety around ethnic and racial profiling and/or immigration discrimination, past traumas from physical, verbal, sexual and emotional abuse, and domestic violence. Others have reported that their anxiety around the level of conflict spilling from the campaigns and from the media has become noise difficult to ignore. We’re hearing about conflicts and tension between family members, partners, and friends impacting previously stable relationships and exacerbating already turbulent ones. Even as I write, I feel an urge to pull away because even thinking about it is stressful! The bad news: It’s pervasive and there’s no end in sight. The good news: There are many ways to improve your well-being in the mean time!

Perhaps it’ll be helpful to understand political burnout first by understanding burnout in general. We often discuss burnout in the context of jobs and careers, and caregiving (caring for an ill or injured family member). Google dictionary defines burnout as, “the reduction of a fuel or substance to nothing through use or combustion.” In short, something ran out of gas. In our case, we’re talking about our bodies. When we say we’re “burned out” we often mean that our emotional energy stores are depleted. You can feel burnt out on specific things and still have emotional energy for others. Think of it as though we have different fuel tanks for different areas of our lives. You might feel depleted or burnt out in your job, but feel energized in your relationship and/or parenting. For the purposes of this article, you may feel burned out on politics, but still interested in social justice. Politics are everywhere right now. Not just during election seasons, but oozing from every news outlet, social media platform, water-cooler conversation, entertainment events, schools, print media, medical facilities, even holiday music. It’s unavoidable. Most of the time, political speak remains tempered, with a few hot-button issues at the surface. In recent years, though, “breaking news” cycle is the rule, not the exception. Political issues have become the largest issues, the most urgent issues, the most relevant issues. This is not one-sided. It is a bipartisan issue. I’ve spoken to many people who once felt empowered to engage in activism who now feel unmotivated, hopeless, anxious, and tired. Others are simply longing for a day when they can go to social media and see a picture of a cute baby animal without it being eaten by the caricature of <insert political figure here>.

RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest, National Network) reported with reference to the Brett Kavanaugh Trial, “Between Thursday, the day of the hearing, and Sunday, RAINN saw a 338 percent increase in hotline traffic. History shows us that when high-profile allegations such as these are in the news it often causes others to reach out too.” For people who have experienced any of the behavior witnessed in the news, it can trigger an emotional response. Eventually, the emotional energy stores become depleted and we experience burn out.

Symptoms of burnout include anxiety, depression, anger, ambivalence, difficulty sleeping or winding down, sleeping too much or feeling keyed up or on edge. Some people report irritability and difficulty concentrating. You may experience a relapse in emotions related to issues you previously thought were resolved. Many of these symptoms overlap with generalized anxiety and depression.

When we feel burnt out in one area, we might notice it creeps up in other areas, too. How many times have we had a bad day at work and then take it out on our spouse/partner/roommate? If this continued over time, it will negatively impact our relationships. For some, there’s an increased risk of relapse of pre-existing depression, and anxiety. We’ve also seen an increase in the rates of suicidal behavior and substance abuse when an individual has an acute stressor in their life. It’s known that stress impacts our immune system, our tolerance to pain, our nutrition, blood pressure and our general wellness. It’s no surprise that we see an increase in somatic complaints like lethargy, headaches, and generally not feeling well.

So, what do we do? First, we should acknowledge that this is a normal responseto extreme stress and it does not mean that you’ve stopped caring or lack empathy. It can be helpful to say out loud, “This is a very stressful time and my body is telling me it needs a break.” Prioritize your own well-being. Try to stay connected to things that bring you joy. You might unplug from technology and spend time with loved ones, friends or pets. You might stay in and cozy up with that book you’ve been meaning to read. Exercise is a great way to reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety. Feel free to delete, block, or ignore anything (or anyone) that contributes to your feeling burnt out. This doesn’t mean don’t advocate, but choose your battles wisely and engage constructively. Though it might be tempting to get the last word, try to remind yourself that you’re limited on resources and you want to spend them in a meaningful way.

If you don’t already, consider talking with a therapist to work on stress management and any issues that arise during this period. They can help you develop skills to manage stress caused by burnout and other stressors. Give yourself permission to take a (social) media vacation. Check in with yourself and practice good self-care. Attending to your own needs during times of high stress is helpful, particularly when the stressor is prolonged. When and if you’re ready to re-engage, you will be better able to do so with clarity and sound mind.

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