Managing Stress in an Impaired Culture

John Driggs“You are not entirely your circumstances. Work on your own life and happiness. Never give up. For starters, embrace the miracle of love, love strong enough to guide or drive one into the great estate of maturity, or, to put it another way, into the apprehension and acceptance of one’s own identity. Do this with everyone you meet, where possible and with cautious respect where impossible. Your worries will be birds that take flight and unburden your shoulders.”
Adapted from a quote by James Baldwin, 1964

In case you haven’t noticed it already, we’ve just had a very traumatizing presidential election. As if you could really miss it! In my eyes, the worst part of it was how it exposed the divisions in our country and the menacing anger of at least half of our citizenry. Due to its incivility, prejudice and threatening disregard of basic human dignity, many of us feel scared and insecure about our future. The bedrock of our personal safety relies on culture for its aspects of basic human decency and regard for each of us. Now, that bedrock has been shattered. As a result we become tense — much like being in an earthquake. The tension is not due to our psychological problems or disappointment with the outcome of this election; it is due to the earthquake. We don’t know where to turn. America may be the land of the free but it is certainly no longer the land of the secure.

Unfortunately, many of us are showing signs of trauma due to this shattering. Some of us may act cool-headed but are underneath quite uneasy about our future and get easily argumentative when challenged. Many others of us are losing sleep due to worry, can’t get this election our of our heads, live with a newly found hyper-vigilance, are continually agitated for no apparent reason, use alcohol or food to medicate and now live with a sense of diminished future. Particularly hard hit are people with prior trauma that involves betrayals of trust like family abuse, emotional abandonment and a history of scapegoating. All the past has come back to haunt too many of us. Indeed it’s shocking to realize that the real terrorists are the very people of our own country.

What makes all of this worse is the diminished health of our country prior to this election. We may say that America is the greatest country in the world and we may have good reason to believe that on many fronts. But the truth of the matter is that America has been one of the least healthy nations among industrialized countries. The Huffington Post in 2016 reported on research of 17 indicators of why America is faltering: no paid sick leave for mothers, no required sick leave coverage by businesses, most spending on education with minimal improvement, most spending on a military, most exportation of weapons to foreign countries, most guns per capita, most consumption of calories and sweeteners, least bang-for-the-buck on health care expenditure (about the same as Cuba) greatest costs on prescription meds, more stillborn births than any other industrialized country, and highest rate of income inequality in the industrialized world. On top of this, 2 out of 5 of us are clinically obese and we have one of the lowest rates of happiness among industrialized countries (Denmark has the highest rate). The purpose to knowing this information is not to be pessimistic about our country but to realize that there is a lot of room for improvement and that we are not superior to others just because we are Americans. Our health and well-being is very much affected by our culture. However, we cannot improve what we do not see.

To be clear, I am not saying that the sky is falling and that we ought to all give up on America or ourselves. Quite the contrary! I believe that America has the strengths to be the great country it is capable of being, as we as individuals are too. To do so we all need to have the courage to get through this past election, to heal and use it to grow and learn beyond where we are now. Let’s get started!

First unhook yourself from the 24/7 news media that constantly keeps you in a state of trauma and hysteria. Turn off or minimize the TV and computer news and get your news from a newspaper; stay in control of how much angst you receive. Realize that much media news is exaggerated or downright inaccurate. Get enough news to stay informed but overall reduce your exposure to bad news and suffering, especially around bedtime. Often the news we get is not for your benefit anyway and it can skew your views to keep you in a continual state of agitation and pessimism. Most of the world is not as bad as what we see on TV and is often a lot more wholesome than we’ve ever imagined. There are a lot more good people in this world than bad and even the bad people are not all bad.

Second, let us realize we have to do something to lessen our stress. We can’t just sit on the couch and expect our stress to lessen. Even the smallest acts can make a world of difference. Work on your own happiness and well-being. Be in touch with the good stuff that is happening in the present. Go to the library and read that great novel you’ve always wanted to read. I can suggest Grayson by Lynne Cox (Harcourt Books, 2006) about the power of compassion. Visit a garden center and get an exotic plant you can nurture all winter. Take that dance class at the community center. Do something positive and small for yourself and have a blast. You will become less threatened by bad things happening in our culture even while you’re aware of them. A short way of saying this is: “Get a life that matters.” If your mental health is not in the best shape get help from a trusted counselor that has an ongoing and challenging relationship with you. Caring for yourself is a socially conscious act.

Third, do get involved in some form of community political action to stand up for social justice. Just do small efforts at first. You may attend a community meeting on a local justice issue. You may write letters to your congress people or local newspaper. Getting involved in a nonviolent peace march may also help you feel less alone. Perhaps the most empowering thing you can do is to listen to people you disagree with on social justice issues and find common areas of agreement. Small acts of seemingly inconsequential action may pack a whollop of hope as you begin to feel safer and more connected. Above all else, resist the urge to blame or scapegoat any group of people as a whole as you only condemn yourself in the process. We are each parts of each other.

Fourth, embrace the meaning and power of human love in relationships. Expand your horizons and get involved in real life. I’ll give you two examples from my own life.

My wife recently asked me to volunteer with her at a choral performance of people with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers. My initial reaction was that it did not sound very exciting, but I did it; we sold tickets for the group and then listened to the performance. Something magical happened. The renditions of old love melodies by people with memory problems was awesome! Such folks maybe didn’t know what day of the week it was, yet they were totally on top of songs that had touched their hearts. It was as if the group was saying, “Our brains may not figure out crossword puzzles but we can sure remind you of what is most important in life.” Coupled with these gifts were the testimonies of their caregivers saying how long they have been married to their loved ones. Some for 50 to 60 years! Tears were flowing throughout the performance as many of us realized that people we saw as impaired actually had much to teach us about life and ourselves. My hesitation in attending the concert was more about my own impairment which needed to be healed.

I’ve done some volunteer work at a local soup kitchen for homeless people. Working there was initially quite depressing despite offering a good meal to hungry indigent people. Seeing mothers with little ones in tow having to go out into the cold with no assured roof over their head was almost more than I could bear. I even thought about discontinuing my volunteer work as the experience was quite demoralizing. After all, wasn’t it a drop in the bucket to give people a good meal and send them on their way?! Yet as I continued with the work a different realization began to sink in. Homeless people going through the food lines thanked us abundantly saying, “Thanks for doing this, you really are taking time out of your day to be with us.” I kept asking myself, What’s the deal? Is our food really that good? I thought it was only average. Then it slowly dawned on me that the homeless people were not thanking us for the food. They were thanking us for looking at them, smiling, and welcoming them to our meal. In other words, we were treating them like human beings that deserved attention. Later I learned that there were many places they could get free food, but they came to us more to be seen and heard than to eat our food. We helpers were particularly good at getting to know the regulars and making a big fuss over our guests. We realized that we should be thanking our guests at least as much as they were thanking us. And we often did.

Clearly, upon reflection of these life-changing experiences, I doubt that any of us were thinking much about the outcome of the recent election. We’ll likely consider and remember these experiences and opportunities forever. When you are touched by the profound euphoria of human compassion you really don’t worry too much about anything. You’re just glad for the love in your life and the love in your own heart. It’s as good as it gets!


John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). Contact John at 651-699-4573.

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