For years, the therapist’s office has been home to a predictable collection of issues: loss, grief, frustration, marital strife. Now, though, it’s increasingly home to a new kind of stress.
Since the November election, mental health professionals have reported a jump in political-related anxiety among patients, as a slew of Americans grapple with the rapid pace of governmental change — and a stream of controversial news.
“What’s happening in the world is affecting people a lot, and it’s showing up in therapy a lot,” said psychologist Ethan Seidman, founder and director of Kendall Psychological Associates in Cambridge. It’s gone from “the shock of the election,” he said, to “a sort of pervasive sense of worry and helplessness.”
“What it reminds me of,” he added, “is 9/11.”
For the first time in its 10-year history, the national survey titled Stress in America reports a “significant” jump in average levels of overall stress, according to the American Psychological Association. The stress spike occurred between last August and January.
The APA report released last week found that 66 percent of Americans — including the majority of both Democrats and Republicans polled — reported feeling stressed about the future of the country, while 57 percent said the current political climate was a “very or somewhat significant” source of stress.
The sources of the recent politically inspired anxieties reported by local therapists are wide-ranging: everything from concerns about civil rights and the environment, to immigration issues and the potential for war.
In some cases, patients who have been the victims of bullying or sexual abuse are confronting difficult memories stirred by the political climate; President Trump, whose invective and sexual braggadocio drew considerable attention during the election, has continued some of that combativeness in office. For others, the new administration — whose early measures have included a controversial immigration ban, since halted — has given rise to acute, immediate concerns.
“For clients who are members of a group that has felt targeted, whether they’re Muslims or African-Americans or Latinos or part of the LGBT community, a lot of them have very specific fears about what changes in policy are going to affect them or people they love,” said Ben Herzig, a clinical psychologist working in Cambridge and Weston, who described a number of Muslim patients who arrived in his office the week following the election as “devastated.”
But the unease has spread further, many psychologists say, as Americans of all backgrounds struggle to adjust to a new political normal.
“Everyone, no matter how privileged, is apprehensive right now, I think,” said Jennifer Lish, director of the Worcester Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy. “About the potential for a war, about the potential for severe erosion of our civil rights, about the potential for destruction of our balance of powers.”
For some, the uptick in anxiety isn’t hard to fathom.
“Uncertainty can be stressful, and this is an administration change that has a lot more uncertainty with it,” says Lynn Bufka, a psychologist and spokesperson for the APA’s Stress in America team. “Whether you support the administration or you don’t support the candidate, in terms of his style, [it’s] a different style than what we typically see in politics.”
The stress, of course, isn’t universal. For plenty of patients, the changing political landscape has been little more than a passing topic of conversation, no more discussed than, say, the recent Super Bowl. And as Herzig points out: “I’m sure there were plenty of patients in other parts of the country that felt exhilarated” by the election’s outcome.
Still, in Massachusetts, one of the nation’s most liberal-leaning states, the rise of politically driven anxiety has been marked.
Some therapists admit that they, too, have struggled since the election, attempting to care for clients while wondering what the new administration might mean for themselves and their profession. Among the worries: a potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act could make it more difficult for patients to get mental health care.
“It’s a very hard time to be a therapist . . . because many therapists are also going through the same kind of reactions,” says Seidman, who describes his current approach as one of we’re-all-in-this-together. “So while we [can] normally be a calm presence, therapists are struggling with their own sense of fear and powerlessness about the world.”
Perhaps it’s telling, too, that the anxiety hasn’t been limited to the therapist’s couch.
Generally, says Brookline dentist Marc Ehrlich, he sees about one or two broken teeth per week.
But in the week leading up to the election, and during the 10 days afterward, his office was treating one or two broken teeth per day — a sign to Ehrlich that “the anxiety quotients had been piqued.”
In the months since, the number of broken tooth visits has returned to normal levels — a sign, possibly, that the stress might be subsiding.
Or that, as Ehrlich jokes, it’s simply manifesting itself in new ways.
“Maybe,” he says, “they’re getting ulcers now instead.”