Feeling Scared and Helpless Right Now? Here Are Some Doctor-Recommended Solutions

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The verdict among several Washington-area psychologists and psychiatrists is unanimous: The opening days of Donald Trump’s presidency have their patients anxious, afraid, and angry. Since the election, their patients’ anxiety has gone through the roof—worry over how their jobs in Washington would be affected, concern for minorities, and fear about what a president that so few Washingtonians voted for could do to the future of the country had them second-guessing several areas of their lives.

Dr. Gregory Jones, a clinical psychologist with Capital Center for Psychotherapy and Wellness, says that following the initial shock that Trump would be America’s next president, “the dust began to settle” as people began to hope that perhaps Trump wouldn’t do all the things he’d promised once actually in office.

And yet, as Trump has acted on those promises—affecting healthcare, climate change, and refugees—Jones says he’s seen a “sharp escalation” of the anxiety he’s witnessed. In fact, Jones says that current political events have been a “constant theme in almost every therapy session that I have.”

Dr. Todd Coxa DC psychiatrist, says that he’s seen an uptick in interest from new clients as well as requests for more frequent sessions from patients he’s had for years. What do they all want to talk about? Trump’s America.

“I don’t think I’ve had a session over the last two weeks that didn’t include emotions about what’s transpiring in the country, and particularly in Washington, DC, the feeling that there’s no escape from it,” says Cox. 

With anxiety high over issues that can feel totally out of their control, patients tend to fall into two categories: those who need to shut it out to get by, and those who need to act—whether by staying informed, marching, calling an elected official, or some other show of resistance—in order to regain a sense of control. For people who are paralyzed with fear, Jones recommends turning off the news, cutting down on Facebook, and practicing self care—exercising and eating well and finding distractions. Some individuals, however, are stressed both by their need to stay informed and by the very information they’re consuming. This group can’t just cut turn off the TV and walk away.

“Part of who they are is also this commitment of being informed and aware, but that awareness in the current state of affairs can generate anxiety and understandable fear,” says Cox.

Meeting your need to stay informed without overwhelming yourself can be a fine line to walk, says Cox. The key is having the self-awareness to know whether taking action or reading a news story is going to help or hurt you.

Dr. Caroline Wohlgemuth, a psychiatrist with a private practice in West End, says that some of her patients came away from the Women’s March with decreased anxiety because they no longer felt so alone. But some of Cox’s patients, though they agreed with the mission, had the self-awareness to know that attending the event would only depress them more. They chose not to attend, but then felt “tremendous guilt” over their lack of participation, says Cox. When counseling this group, Cox told them that finding self-awareness for what you can and cannot handle is “only a good thing.”

“Some of those people are better off not listening and talking about it, and it’s more about dealing with their guilt that they’re not doing something about it every second,” says Wohlgemuth.

There’s ultimately no one-size-fits-all solution to the fear and anger that people are feeling right now. While these emotions may be somewhat universal—Cox says that anxiety over current events isn’t bound to party lines among his patients—how people experience it is unique to the individual.

“What’s going on in our world is affecting everyone, but the effect on everyone is manifesting differently, even if the emotions are the same,” says Cox.

If you’re among the ones that feels like looking the other way is the only way to survive, Jones recommends doing so. If you’re among those that wants to act, then do so—but make sure it’s in a way that doesn’t overwhelm you. Jones like to remind his patients that you’re not supposed to put on someone else’s oxygen mask until you’ve secured your own—and the same rule applies with your mental wellbeing.

Associate Editor

Caroline Cunningham joined Washingtonian in 2014 after moving to the DC area from Cincinnati, where she interned and freelanced for Cincinnati Magazine and worked in content marketing. She currently resides in College Park.