Over the past couple of years, my colleagues and I have talked about our practices being beyond full. It’s a nice problem to have, but it’s also disconcerting to think that there is an increased demand for mental health services overall. We have all seen in recent years more anxiety, more tension, and a constant stream of “worried well” knocking on our doors. Whereas usually we have ups and downs as far as how busy we are, the usual summer slump has not occurred for the past two years, and many of us are going into the fall—usually the end of a relatively quiet period—with our practices already full. Indeed, a poll last year indicated that up to 40% of our population was more anxious than they had been the year before. The responders cited safety, health, and finances as the biggest stressors, with politics and interpersonal relationships right behind.
Some of us have joked about a “Trump Effect” since 2016, and regardless of what side of the aisle you tend towards, there is some truth to this, as the political situation in our country has been very unstable. Uncertainty and instability breeds anxiety, while a feeling of being in control often quells it. Mass shootings, impeachment hearings, fear of deportation, rising medical costs, and other stressors seem to be increasing, and the population as a whole feels out of control. The 24-hour news cycle that constantly interrupts our lives doesn’t help in the least.
While some anxieties may be exaggerated (children are still very unlikely to be kidnapped by a stranger; plane crashes are rare occurrences; you’re fairly safe driving over a bridge), some of this increase is in reaction to real world threats and problems. When I have a child sitting in my office, recounting the mass shooting in El Paso, expressing concern that the shooter was going after Latinos like him, or worrying that some of his friends may be deported over summer vacation, these are real world worries. And because these issues are in the news on an hourly basis, there is no getting away from them.
Constant streams of stressful information and events cause our bodies to react in kind. We release stress hormones, our blood pressure increases, and we react to the stress in a physical way that can be detrimental to our health. My morning routine usually consists of reaching over for my iPad and reading the newspaper before starting my day. One day, I realized it was making me get out of bed angry — what a way to start the day! I want to be informed, but as one study in late 2017 found, a majority of our population believes that our country is at the lowest point they could recall in history, and if this is the information coming through the pixels, how can my day, or anyone’s day, start out easy? It’s a delicate balance to remain informed and activated if you want to change your corner of the world but also give yourself time to decompress. For me, it’s an hour-long dog walk in the Rockefeller Preserve where I don’t see another human, only critters, and can be alone with my thoughts. For others, it might be yoga or meditation. For some, it’s art or music. But in some way, we have to give ourselves a moment to breathe. No phones, no news, no alerts.
The only constant is change, so I know that our society will continue to move in different directions, grow, struggle, and hopefully solve some of the problems that plague us today. But we can’t be part of the solution if we are a ball of tension and if, as a whole, we are more and more anxious with each passing year. My favorite theorist when I was reading all the classics in psychology was Carl Jung. He knew about balance, from his theories on the male/female, introvert/extrovert and other personality components, to his ability to balance hard work and hard play. He’d work, write, get completely involved in his career, and then spend months at his country home with no electricity or running water. He’d stay there alone and recharge. That’s not feasible for most of us, but we need to find a bit of that in small doses. A walk in the park, a hot bath, or a few days away from the headlines could help us all. I’m happy to have a busy practice, but I’d also be happy to see more healthy people around.
Barbara Kapetanakes, PsyD. Practices psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow