Addressing Political Anxiety in Psychotherapy

March 23, 2024

What is Political Anxiety? 

Are your clients showing signs of political anxiety? Although not a formal diagnosis, political anxiety is a phrase used to describe the anxiety experienced as a result of the current domestic and/or international political situation and world events. 

In 2016, 58% of Americans reported significant spikes in feelings of anxiety due the election, and in 2020 that number rose to 68% (APA, 2020). Symptoms of political anxiety may include obsessional thinking or intrusive, fearful thoughts about the political situation, heightened concerns for safety and security, agitation and hypervigilance and difficulty sleeping. 

Why Understanding Political Anxiety is Important 

It seems more people are finding it hard not to feel impacted by world events and there is an increase in recognizing how world events shape and can shift our daily lives on an individual level. 

I hear my clients and the clients of my supervisees sharing more concerns on topics such as abortion, immigration, the cost of living and wars, freedom and the state of democracy.

There are a number possible factors which may contribute to our clients (and ours) heightened levels of political anxiety:

  1. Increased Polarization– Perhaps attributed to the deja vu of the 2024 Trump/Biden match set for round two, and the heartbreaking wars in the Middle East and Ukraine, there is a sense of increased polarization in our current political culture. As a result our clients may feel anxious when they sense that their family, social group or community is seemingly divided or fractured, thereby impacting their sense of stability and safety. Polarization may also increase pressure for people to “choose a side”, resulting in social tension and conflict with acquaintances and close loved ones. 
  2. Increase in a Sense of Uncertainty– For clients who are personally vested in a certain political outcome and who are affiliated with a certain political party, the fear of a possible change in leadership and policies can feel deeply frightening and troubling.  
  3. Increase in a Sense of Powerlessness-  Voting and voting rights have grown so controversial that while recognizing the importance of voting, many believe there are powerful social and economic factors beyond their individual vote that hold immense influence and control over certain political outcomes thereby leaving them feeling quite powerless.
  4. Media Bias– The role of the media in today’s political climate cannot be underestimated in keeping us hyper-engaged, hypervigilant and emotionally reactive. Media companies and the information they produce and feature tends to cater to their audience which undoubtedly increases and feeds the concerns a client may already have. A recent study found that 73% of Americans reported feeling overwhelmed due to news coverage of world events (APA, 2022).
  5. Resurfacing of Safety,  Power, Control Dynamics – The act of choosing a leader to protect, guide and lead us can stir up associations, fears and expectations we may have or had of caregivers and/or parents.  

Issues that May Arise as Clients Address Their Political Anxiety

A growing number of clients in our practice seem eager and antsy, although sometimes apprehensive to unload and talk about their political anxiety. Because there also tends to be a social taboo to discuss political issues, clients can feel trepidation and even ask for permission to do so in session if they don’t feel such a right to disclose overtly what they feel. 

Therapists may question if the psychotherapy space is the best place to discuss such concerns and find ourselves in session trying to recall our treatment plans, questioning how such feelings are aligned with their presenting issues or what their therapy has been focused on.

Additionally, when a client begins to discuss their political anxiety in session, we might feel uneasy, on edge or triggered, especially if a client is espousing feelings quite contrary to where we stand. 

Some clients might even press their therapists to disclose their political beliefs and feelings on certain topics or even attempt to challenge and sway their therapist to see and support their point of view. 

Tips for How to Manage the Exploration and Discussion of Political Anxiety

Such discussions and exploration of political anxiety can go a number of different directions. Starting from the place where what your client is feeling is important, even if not aligned with their specified treatment plan, they are sharing feelings with you and are asking for attention. Below are some suggestions for what to do next when political anxiety infiltrates your sessions: 

  1. Bring Awareness– If political anxiety arises in session with your client, bring full awareness to the way you feel impacted by it.  Allow yourself to fully acknowledge your feelings and notice your thoughts as they arise.  
  2. Non-reactivity- If strong feelings emerge for you in response to what a client is saying there is no need to react to that feeling. Allow time to pass and make time to process the feelings in supervision or with a trusted colleague. If a client is growing excessively triggering to work with, it maybe time to evaluate the possibility of referring this client to another mental health provider
  3. Provide a Holding Environment–  If the client chooses to, it is important to provide our clients with a non-judgmental holding space to process political anxiety where they feel accepted and understood no matter what their political beliefs may be
  4. Search for the Underlying Emotion- Listening for, acknowledging and validating the underlying emotional content (ie., concerns for safety, lack of control, sense of powerlessness) in what political opinions and political anxiety they are sharing can be quite eye-opening for the client and impactful for your work together rather than venturing into a debate-style conversation on certain issues.
  5. Develop Clear Boundaries– It is imperative that mental health providers exercise caution when considering self- disclosure. Due to the sensitive and triggering feelings associated with political anxiety, clients may find it difficult to feel trust in the therapeutic relationship if the political beliefs of the clinicians negates or is contrary to what they hold.
  6. Develop Coping Skills–  The discussion of political anxiety provides fertile ground to teach and practice coping skills. Assisting your clients in developing healthy coping skills such as redirecting focus and energy to where and what they have control over, while at the same time limiting time spent on worrying and catastrophizing can be  Constructively planning for the worst case scenario, if their candidate does not win for example, and imagining how and what one can do instead. And also limiting the amount of news intake and increasing focus on self-care can be helpful in reducing political anxiety.
  7. Processing the Resurfacing of Power and Control Dynamics– As noted above,  political anxiety may bring up associations to safety, power and control with attachment figures and relationships. It may present an opportunity to reflect on and process the hurt, disappointment and challenging boundaries your clients may have experienced in these past and/or current relationships. 

Political anxiety is a real issue which may impact many people seeking therapy especially in this coming election year. There are many factors that can contribute to political anxiety including polarization, uncertainty, feelings of powerlessness and increased attention to media and resurfacing of power and control dynamics.

Clinicians can help to  manage political anxiety by bringing awareness to their reaction, holding a non-reactive stance, providing a holding environment, searching for the underlying emotions, developing coping skills, and processing power and control dynamics.

Remember, the therapy space is not a debate stage, it is a place to meet oneself honestly with humility,safety, trust and acceptance with the goal of finding clarity, healing and growth.


Resources:

American Psychological Association (2020). 2020 Election a Source of Stress for more Americans than the 2106 Presidential Race. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/10/election-stress

American Psychological Association (2022). Media Overload is Hurting Our Mental Health. Here are ways to manage headline stress. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2022/11/strain-media-overload

More like this

Pin It on Pinterest