Words Lim Teck Choon
May 2018 saw the making of a historical milestone in Malaysia’s political landscape, as the country witnessed a change of ruling power for the first time in 59 years. The road to this milestone had been a tumultuous one, however, and regardless of which side of the fence one may be on, some people may still experience or are starting to experience anxiety long after the election results. If you are one of these people, read on to find out what the experts have to say on getting over these election blues.
Last Year Was Quite Distressing for Some Folks in the US and UK
Donald Trump officially became the 45th President of the United States on January 20, 2017, and even more than a year later, he remains a polarizing figure both in the USA and outside. In the months prior to his inauguration, he engaged in acrimonious debate with his political opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the resulting fallout saw their supporters engaging in heated debate on social media. The mainstream media took sides, as did Hollywood, and dirt was flung from each side in a no-holds barred fight.
It was then mental health professionals noticed an unfortunate trend: more and more Americans were becoming anxious. The American Psychological Association (APA), in fact, noted that they saw the anxiety rates in the US increase for the first time in a decade!
Many people reported that they became addicted to following political news on social media, but doing so resulted in greater stress levels. As a result, many became less interested in work or school. Others became very worried about their livelihood and future. This phenomenon was not restricted to people who supported a certain political party: it affected people regardless of their political affiliation.
It did not end after the elections. As President Trump remains a controversial figure, everything he says and does is scrutinized by both social media and mainstream news, regardless of whether it is something he ate for dinner or his stance on some international crisis. Many Americans remain glued to these news, and continue to become mired in anxiety.
Similarly, the Brexit results in the UK caused a rise in anxiety among some people in the months leading to the referendum as well as the months after.
And This Year, Some Malaysians May be Affected Too
Even before the election was announced, the Malaysian social media landscape was a fiery arena, as most of us could surely attest. Issues such as the economy, press freedom and religious tolerance saw an upsurge of fiery debates (and mudslinging) among users. Things became more heated when politicians entered the fray.
It’s not unlikely that quite a few of us may be affected by the constant furore that continues even to this day, as the new government begins to settle into its roles and responsibilities.
But Why is All This Anxiety Happening?
Two words: social media. It is very easy to access Facebook, Twitter and other social media to follow and discuss election news. These platforms are constantly updated around the clock, and as a result, many people feel a compulsion to check for updates regardless of whether they are at work or at home. As a result, the election can become a constant fixture in our mind.
Often, the topics covered are divisive and contentious. There is also the tendency in social media to exaggerate or distort or spread outright false news and conspiracy theories. Since we are constantly thinking about, discussing or engaging in heated conversations on these topics, we can become overwhelmed and stressed out. Additionally, people often forgo social niceties because of the relative anonymity afforded by the Web, so we may find ourselves dealing with name-callers and trolls as well – all of which can only increase our anxiety.
Therefore, while in the past political talk may be limited to the people we meet and spend time with in real life – and hence, we can avoid them if we choose – it is now harder than ever to avoid these political discourses unless we completely log off from the Web. (And let’s face it, not many of us are willing to consider that very notion!)
We can become anxious about the future. Are the conspiracy theories true? Are our jobs going to be affected? Will the economy ever improve? Because everything becomes exaggerated and magnified in the microcosm of social media, it can be hard to stay rational after being exposed to the digital media circus for so long. Hence, anxiety.
However, don’t worry if we are affected. Here are five tips to ditch the blues and look to the future with a greater degree of optimism.
Know that you’re not “crazy”. Many people are affected by anxiety due to being bombarded with political news and rumours around the clock, and anxiety by its very nature does not have to be rational. Therefore, don’t be afraid to seek counselling if your anxiety is affecting your ability to carry out your daily routines as well as your relationships with other people.
Limit your exposure to social media. Limit your social media time to, say, 10 minutes a day. Temporarily unfollow news sources and Facebook friends who are constantly discussing politics (don’t worry, your friends won’t know that you have temporarily unfollowed them). If you are in WhatsApp groups that are devoted to such discussions, mute notifications if you do not want to leave those groups. If all this does not work, it may be worth considering cutting off these sources of your anxiety for the time being. Some people even delete their WhatsApp, Facebook and other social media apps on their phones.
You can try to minimize real life exposure too. For example, when reading newspapers, skip the local news section. Politely ask friends and family members to avoid talking about politics during get-togethers, if possible, as such talks can quickly turn into arguments.
Find common grounds instead of drawing battle lines. When friends and family members are unable to reconcile their different political beliefs, relationships may become fractured. Instead of demanding that the people around you conform to your beliefs, try to find and appreciate things that you have in common. Remember, your affection for these people is not rooted in political beliefs!
If you find yourself affected by the victory of a candidate that you do not support, look up that person’s political stances and see whether you agree with that person on anything. Finding common ground will make it easier to lose your bitterness and reduce your anxiety.
Think: what’s the worst thing that can happen? Write down the worst-case scenarios that you think can happen after the election results. Will you lose your job? Your house? Will your children find it harder to enter the universities of their choice?
Once you have listed down these scenarios, write down the chances you think they will happen. Also, should they come to pass, write down one or two things you can do to deal with them.
By the time you finish your list, you will realize that either the worst-case scenarios are very unlikely to happen, or that you have ways to deal with them and hence they aren’t as terrible as you initially assumed. Either way, you will find some relief from this exercise, and it will be easier to deal with your anxieties from thereon.
Dr Gurdeep Grewal
Anxiety is an adaptive physiological reaction to forewarn us of trouble or danger. This current political turbulence is certainly a major stressor to most adult Malaysians and some may find their levels of anxiety crossing over from normal to one that is pathological. So here is how to spot if the anxiety is excessive and when you need to seek help:
- Feeling constantly “on edge” and unable to relax
- Feelings of worry that are persistent and extend into other facets of daily life
- Physical symptoms such as palpitations, sweaty palms, increased rate of breathing, dizziness or tingling sensations, dry mouth and nausea, to name a few
- Inability to focus on other matters leading to deteriorating performance at work or school
- Fatigue, muscle tension and difficulty falling asleep
- Compulsive need to keep updating yourself on current news and getting irritable if this need is not met
A visit to a mental health professional to get counselling and to learn relaxation and adaptive behavioural techniques will usually suffice. In predisposed individuals, the stress and uncertainty of the current political landscape may precipitate a full-blown anxiety disorder that may warrant a trial of medication in addition to the techniques described above.
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