Licensed professional counselor (LPC) Keri Riggs, an American Counseling Association member with a private practice in Richardson, Texas, started noticing the pattern about eight months to a year ago: clients reporting a sharp increase in anxiety. And it wasn’t only her existing clients who were expressing discomfort; new clients were seeking her out, surprised and distressed by the symptoms they were experiencing.
“I had [new] clients coming in who would say, ‘I went to the ER because I had chest pain, and they told me I was having a panic attack,’” she says.
Others told Riggs that although they had always had some anxiety, they had been able to handle it previously. Now they felt that they needed help and a place to talk about what they were feeling.
What is the impetus for this ongoing surge of stress and anxiety? Riggs believes that a confluence of terrorist events — ranging from multiple attacks in Paris to the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, Florida, to the more recent bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England — have combined with the drama and divisiveness of the current political climate to leave many people feeling fearful and uneasy.
A substantial number of Riggs’ clients belong to groups — including immigrants, women and members of the LGBTQ community — that feel specifically singled out and threatened by the inflammatory rhetoric that has increasingly taken center stage over the past year-plus. Those who care particularly about the people in these groups or the issues affecting them also find themselves susceptible to a lingering sense of anxiety and dread.
Of course, it is not just people in “targeted” populations who are experiencing rising anxiety. In February, the American Psychological Association released a report, “Stress in America: Coping With Change,” that found two-thirds of Americans are stressed about the future of the nation.
Gerald Brown, an ACA member and LPC with a private practice in Statesville, North Carolina, didn’t need a survey to tell him that Americans are more stressed. “In both [my] new intakes and established clients — especially in the last four to six months — anxiety levels have increased tenfold,” he says.
Brown says that uncertainty about the future and the lack of cohesion in America’s political and social landscape have left many people living in a state of hypervigilance and suspicion, distrustful of those around them and prone to looking over their shoulders. He adds that this atmosphere of anxiety is affecting how people feel about themselves and making them question whether they can trust their own instincts about “outsiders.” Brown says he has witnessed an increased level of suspicion for anyone who might be considered “other,” which is serving to create a substantial societal divide.
ACA member Peter D. Ladd, a licensed mental health counselor who specializes in existential counseling and mediation, agrees, saying that what he calls a negative “emotional climate” is taking its toll on many people in the United States. He believes that this climate — filled with talk of revenge, resentment and hatred — is encouraging violence and harming people’s mental health.
Ladd, who sees primarily families and children in his private practice in Clayton, New York, says that many of his clients are displaying significant apathy. “I believe their sense of hopelessness comes from the climate of chaos presently dominating our government and society,” says Ladd, coordinator of the mental health counseling program at St. Lawrence University and the author of numerous books on conflict resolution and relationships. “In the same way that adolescents may feel apathetic from a chaotic family system, many adults, I believe, are feeling a sense of hopelessness from a chaotic government and society. Chaos wears people out, leaving in its wake a sense of hopelessness.”
Brown says more of his clients have been reporting relationship troubles, problems sleeping, unhealthy eating habits and a general sense of malaise. “A lot of new clients have been gaining weight, snacking a lot more, and it’s unconscious snacking. They didn’t even realize they were eating,” he says. “What I find is that people are watching the news too much and too often. … It impacts how they eat, how they sleep and their levels of anxiety.”
Riggs says that helping clients determine how much news to take in when they are feeling anxious is a delicate balance. “We walk that line [of], ‘How do I stay informed about what is happening in my world without becoming paralyzed?’” she says. “And that’s a very individual path, because what works for me might not work for someone else.”
Brown is a big advocate of turning off the news and getting off of social media, but he acknowledges that not everyone can or wants to turn away from reporting and opinions on current events. However, he does think that clients need to find a way to disconnect and wind down at the end of the day. He observes that many people arrive home from a day of work — which may have been anxiety-producing in and of itself — and put down their devices to have dinner, only to be drawn back in by a headline alert or a social media notification. Hours later, it’s time for bed, and they have spent zero waking hours being disconnected.
“I don’t think it’s healthy. You need to find a balance,” Brown emphasizes. He recommends that clients start the winding down process at least two hours before bedtime by dimming the lights, reading something light or listening to relaxing music. And although he isn’t anti-television, Brown recommends that clients not watch violent or intense shows at night. “Those images are hard to get out of our heads, and it impacts a lot of people’s sleep patterns,” he explains.
Riggs agrees that getting enough sleep is essential and one of the most important parts of self-care, particularly for those struggling with anxiety. At the same time, she says, self-care doesn’t come with a one-size-fits-all prescription. The key is cultivating pleasure and joy, she emphasizes. Some people seek solace in faith or work out their tensions through exercise. Others seek enjoyment — and perhaps seek meaning — through art, literature or music.
Riggs also helps clients build resilience by having them identify the sources of personal support in their lives and encouraging them to look back on the difficult times they have gone through in the past and survived.
Brown finds that spending dedicated time with each of his young daughters helps him maintain his personal equilibrium. “I think another thing that is missing [in modern society] is not getting one-on-one time with loved ones,” he says. “Everyone goes to their own corners at home and does their own thing.”
As restorative as spending time with loved ones may be for some, it can be a particular source of stress for others in these politically divisive times, Riggs observes. Some of her clients have mentioned that their friends and family members have minimized or dismissed their fears and anxiety. Others have struggled with loved ones who want to steamroll them into agreeing with a certain point of view. In those cases, Riggs says, “We talk a lot about assertive communications strategy. ‘What would you like to say [to this person]? What’s appropriate?’”
Sometimes those on opposite sides simply can agree to disagree by acknowledging that they will still love and respect one another despite their different viewpoints, Riggs says. However, it’s not uncommon for people to get pushback. “I’ve had clients who have had to hang up on people because [those people] refuse to respect the boundaries,” Riggs says.
Indeed, cutting off or limiting communication may be the only way for some clients to effectively deal with friends or family members who repeatedly cross boundaries and raise the clients’ stress levels. In certain instances, clients may have to unfriend people on Facebook or specify the terms under which they can meet or the topics that they can discuss.
Unfortunately, sometimes even that isn’t enough. “Really aggressive people can be toxic, and clients need to evaluate, ‘What value does this person bring to my life?’” Riggs says.
Avoiding Facebook, scary movies and irate relatives is all well and good, but how do those who are feeling stressed and depressed get through the day?
Katie Gurwell, a Seattle-based licensed mental health counselor whose specialties include grief and life transitions, tells clients to build a “first-aid kit” with 3-by-5-inch cards that have helpful suggestions written on them such as “go eat something right now” or “put this song on.” She also urges them to start noticing when something makes them feel good — including small events such as seeing a beautiful flower, spotting a bird or hearing a specific song — and taking 10 to 20 seconds to savor and absorb the moment rather than just moving on.
When clients are overcome by stress, Riggs recommends using cognitive behavior techniques such as naming five things that they see or thinking of five countries that start with the letter “S.” She says these simple exercises can draw people away from their anxious sensations and into the cognitive, which is calming. One grounding technique that Riggs recommends to clients is to stop and observe what they hear in their environment, such as voices in the next office, birds outside the window or a clock ticking.
Brown likes to employ a simple breathing technique that he also recommends to clients: Inhale for four seconds through the nose, hold the breath for seven seconds and slowly breathe out for eight. He is also a devotee of the song “Weightless,” which the British group Marconi Union and sound technicians created to be the “most relaxing sound ever” (available on YouTube). A British neuromarketing research firm, Mindlab International, conducted a study and found that listening to the song produced a greater state of relaxation than any other music tested to this point.
We may not be able to change the world — or other people — but it’s still possible to regain a sense of personal control. That’s one message that counselors can communicate to clients who are anxiety-ridden over the current state of the world.
Brown helps clients envision a new future by creating a “vision board.” He asks them to fill a blank white poster board with images, words or phrases related to personal growth, such as self-improvement ideas, relationship goals or career prospects. Examples might include a desired job title or position or even a place that the client wants to visit. Brown believes that looking at and reflecting on these words and images every day can help people envision the steps that they need to take to achieve their goals.
Another way to re-establish personal control is for clients to understand the elements that trigger their anxiety, Riggs says. “What’s the story [clients are telling themselves] about what is going to happen? So many clients are saying, ‘What if? What is this going to mean for my children?’”
Clients often fear that if something bad happens, they won’t be able to handle it, Riggs says. So she asks, “What is your worst fear? What’s important to you, and what are you afraid of, and what do you want to do about it?”
She notes that part of anxiety is being effectively frozen, meaning that the antidote often involves taking action. Riggs first helps her clients identify what is within their control and what is not. She then helps them learn to let go of what is outside their control but to take action on the things that are.
“Taking action” can mean anything from getting involved in local politics to making a symbolic gesture (such as boycotting particular businesses or brands) to finding a community of
like-minded individuals so the client doesn’t feel alone in his or her struggles, Riggs explains.
One of Riggs’ clients decided that she wanted to become more active in helping refugees, so they spent a session talking about steps the client could take to do that. The discussion involved questions that helped the client define the level of involvement that would be personally meaningful. “What’s my next step? Am I a person who can just write a check, or do I need to be grass-roots and have refugees come live in my home?” Riggs says.
At the same time, clients don’t necessarily need a “cause” to make a difference or take action, Brown says. He says that bringing meaning and purpose to others through volunteering — such as by visiting a retirement home and playing games with the residents as he and his family do — can give clients a sense of control. “Despite what is happening politically,” he says, “you can begin to effect change in positive ways.”
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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