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Navigating Political Conversations With Depression and Anxiety

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Last night, I sat at the dinner table across from family members who I love dearly, and I did something I’ve never been able to do: I discussed politics.

It was absolutely terrifying. My hands would not stop shaking. Teeth chattered inside my head. I had to fight every impulse in my body not to flee or shut down. My heart pounded; I had to slow my speech down, articulate every word and not allow myself to crumble into an emotional mess. It was rough, but it was also absolutely necessary.

As a person living with multiple chronic conditions, including generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, soft bipolar and a life-threatening heart condition (long QT syndrome), the world has seemed an awfully scary place in recent months. The country is divided. My family is divided. My social media feeds are inundated with anger, sadness and aggression. Even the holidays seemed particularly difficult this past December.

I’ve never in my life had such strong opinions politically as I do today. In the past, I was so fearful of having the “wrong” opinion, I chose not to have one at all, or chose not to voice it because of the anxiety it caused. Perhaps it is because I grew up in a family where political conversation became confrontational quickly. Since I have lived with anxiety for as long as I can remember, my defense mechanism has always been to flee or change the subject immediately for fear of conflict. So, how, in the midst of so much conflict in the country today, does someone like me find understanding and reprieve, now that I have actual opinions?

Avoidance only gets you so far. I’m a master of the “escape and deflect” strategy. But since November, I have lived in a family divided. Don’t get me wrong: I love my family desperately and we are close to an almost alarming degree, but there are just some things we do not agree on. The recent election is one of those few things. Alas, we have been tiptoeing around each other for months.

If you live with anxiety and depression, you know the smallest thing can trigger an episode, so when there is a really big issue hanging over everyone you know, it can feel like the world is ending and swallowing you whole. “Escape and deflect” only works for so long and then becomes “couch lock” — a level of escapism that causes you to lock down on the couch to escape reality with Netflix (or books, or whatever else), and only get up to use the bathroom or eat. It is a dangerously fine line for some of us between a healthy amount of escape and a depressive or anxious spiral.

I had therapy right before dinner with my family. My therapist and I discussed my anxiety about the current political climate and how I’ve felt anxious around some family members recently because of it. The “elephant in the room” has been hard on all of us.

What to do? Well, my dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) has been a godsend. If you struggle with anxiety or depression, DBT is an incredibly valuable set of skills. But it doesn’t work well if you choose to constantly avoid the thing that makes you anxious or depressed. So, last night, when the conversation turned to some hot button political issues, I sat through the discomfort of confrontation. I chose my words carefully. Most of all, I forced myself to be compassionate to my loved ones and to myself, to really listen instead of just reacting. It was difficult. There were still tears, raised voices and moments when it seemed we’d broken something vital. The victory was that I forced myself to share and listen respectfully, despite my anxiety and fear.

And guess what? The world didn’t end. I didn’t damage my relationships to the point of it being unrepairable.  I even learned some important things about this type of discussion:

  • At heart, most of us just want the same thing: safety and prosperity for ourselves and our loved ones. The roads we travel to get there are just different.
  • Perspective and empathy are incredible tools to understanding other points of view.
  • One side does not own pain and suffering. There are people on both sides of the political divide who have chronic illness, anxiety, depression, abuse, assault and discrimination.
  • Our experiences shape our views, and even though our experience may be similar, it doesn’t mean we agree.
  • Sometimes we agree on more than we think we do.
  • We can agree to disagree.
  • We must engage in face-to-face courageous conversation that is more than just yelling and personal attacks. The internet has taken the humanity out of the equation, and we must add it back.
  • We cannot let manipulation, political or other, rule our personal lives.
  • Radical acceptance can be incredibly freeing. There are some things that I just cannot change about the world, there are opinions of others I will never sway and issues I will never concede on. Worrying about changing these things does nothing but cause me pain and suffering, so why ruminate?
  • Be mindfully aware of yourself and others. Notice when limits have been pushed too far and be compassionate and empathetic. Everyone has feelings that can get hurt.
  • End on a positive note, with something you can all agree on. A little levity can go a long way — we ended last night by looking at pictures of puppies. It made a ton of difference on how we all felt when we left.

(Of course, in some instances, the line between overcoming your fears and being in physical danger is very real, in which case escaping is the safe thing to do.)

Ultimately, we are all human. We are imperfect beings who seek a perfection that often doesn’t exist. We are not as different as we believe, and untethered anger (though sometimes justified) does nothing to bridge the divide. Right now, more than ever, I think we need compassion in our fellow humans, if only to ease our own suffering, anxiety and depression. Hope is critical in dark times, but we are not alone in the struggle. We must persevere, no matter what political side we are on.

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Image via Thinkstock

Originally published: January 29, 2017
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