Political Anxiety and How it Relates to Substance Abuse

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Whatever your political views, there’s little argument that today’s news climate is stressful. Changes are happening in politics – and with upcoming midterm elections, there will be a new political landscape at the national and local level.

Therapists tend to see an upswing in client appointments during elections – both before and after votes are cast. Change is necessary to life and overall a positive thing. But it also can precipitate significant anxiety. Anxiety, we well know, is a contributing factor to substance abuse, relapse and addiction.

The Complex Science of Anxiety

The science of anxiety is complex. It can originate from any constellation of biological factors, neuropsychological, developmental or cognitive factors. This means that anxiety can be due to a family history of such, experiencing a past trauma, having a brain wired to “detect threats” or experiencing a stress in life that is causing excessive rumination or worry.

Some developmental risk factors for developing anxiety include; having female sex; poverty; adverse life events; chronic physical illness; chronic mental disorder; parental loss or separation; low support childhood; and parents with mental health problems.

There are various forms of anxiety, including panic, obsessive compulsive disorder, and agoraphobia.

Let’s consider one form known as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and review its signs and symptoms according to the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual (DSM) – 5th edition:

  • Excessive anxiety and worry occurring on more days than not over six months and occurring in a number of events or activities (such as school or work performance)
  • An individual finds it difficult to control the worry
  • The anxiety or worry causes clinically significant distress and impairs life functions
  • The disturbance is not due to substances or medical conditions
  • The disturbance is not better explained by another mental disorder
  • The anxiety and worry are associated with three or more of the following six symptoms (with some symptoms present more days than not for the past six months):
  1. Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
  2. Being easily fatigued
  3. Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
  4. Irritability
  5. Muscle tension
  6. Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless, unsatisfying sleep)

Anxiety and Substance Abuse

So how does this relate to substance abuse? Anxiety that goes untreated can yield unhealthy coping mechanisms. Individuals often seek to numb their experience through drugs or alcohol after time. This is exactly why inherent in any psychiatric assessment of anxiety is a detailed assessment of one’s substance use. The good news is that there is much hope for people who suffer from anxiety – especially when it is caught early and addressed proactively.

Medication can be very helpful along with therapy, support groups and stress management techniques. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) outlines various types of anxiety disorders, the risk of concomitantly developing a substance use problem, and they offer tips for addressing the problem.

There is also a lot of writing in this political climate on political anxiety.  An organization, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) is dedicated to addressing a variety of current events and mental health issues.

Political anxiety is such a hot topic that a simple ‘Google’ search of those two buzzwords yields over 160 million results. Regardless of party lines, people who identify as politically active tend to find today’s climate divisive and therefore stressful.

It’s important to retain control of our own behaviors – even when our feelings might be guided by worry, tension and uncertainty. Despite a drive to numb those negative emotions, now more than ever is the time to practice healthy coping skills. And go a step further and share what you find useful with a friend – because although many people don’t wear anxiety on their sleeve, it is a common mental health problem and chances are that you know someone – probably many, who are struggling.

Healthy Coping Skills in Action

Healthy coping skills are plentiful. Check out this brief but impactful list from Mental Health Wellness Week and add to it with your own favorite skills. Breaking down coping into the physical senses can also be a good strategy.

Ignite senses by looking at something bold, vibrant and beautiful. Also try smelling something sweet and strong. Touch something cozy and soft like a favorite blanket or wrap your hands around a warm cup of tea. Taste something strong and sour. This will help jolt you back to reality. And take the time to hear something peaceful and comforting – birds singing, children playing, waves crashing on a beach, etc.

It’s also important to engage a professional therapist if you are experiencing signs of anxiety. Remember that anxiety can be a precursor to something worse…like an addiction.

During stressful times, it’s important to stay informed and active in what you believe in – this is not the time to numb or escape from reality.


Images Courtesy of iStock

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