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How Understanding Depression Helped Me Through Election Anxiety

election anxiety

This week, we had the nightmare of our presidential election in the middle of one of my deepest depressions. My understanding of and ability to live with depression has once again proven to be a real asset for me. It again helped me through a very difficult time and gave me a clarity that helped me to process the anxiety, fear, and pain many of us felt throughout the whole ordeal. It also helped me better understand the other side of the debate.

This election-infused depression was not normal for me. Because of the prevalent election anxiety among so many people on the left and the right, I was experiencing levels of anxiety that I never had before. I also got the chance to explore my states in a way that has led to a better understanding of both anxiety and fear. My better understanding led to better choices on what actions to take. Instead of being controlled by my states and acting out in unproductive ways I used them give me insight for how to live up to the person I want to be. Such positive outcomes are available to all of us when we see our states as sources for insight instead of things to avoid.

I would be lying if I claimed that I was not sometimes very overwhelmed by election anxiety. While I can live pretty comfortably in very intense depressive states, the depression enhanced with intense levels of election anxiety got the best of me on many occasions. I had to take pretty strong steps to lower my level of intensity  just to be able to make it through the day a few times.

But I did get through and in the last two days I have been able to make very rapid progress to a place where I am not only comfortable again, but I have learned a great deal about myself, my country, and both sides of the left/right divide. It turns out that intense anxiety and fear can teach us a great deal, just like intense depression can, if we are willing to explore it instead of fight it.

I think the most important societal lesson I learned is that the acronym F.E.A.R (False Evidence Appearing Real) is something we should all take a deep look at. Most of our fears  are based on false belief that the few terrible actors in any group are representative of the entire population.

Those on the left condemn the people on the right when they say, for example, that all Muslims are terrorists. We should all fear Muslim terrorists but that does not mean we should fear all Muslims. Those who try to stoke fear of all Muslims are controlling us through our fears by escalating them to the point that the fear makes us think and act in ways that we would not if we were living up to our better selves. Fear feeds our anxiety and destroys our ability to think rationally.

But I have to admit to doing the exact same thing about people who live in middle America. When I leave the comfort of the cities and go out into the country and the small towns, I am frightened because I think all of those people are bigots, homophobes, and hate-mongers. And I see people on the left making that same claim when we say half of them are deplorable. Yes, a very small percent of them are reason for caution, but to paint them all with such a false notion makes us miss the fact that most of the people out there are wonderful people who care about the same things we do.

I have had friends from the country who come to the big city of San Francisco and are frightened by the homeless, the insane, and then perfectly fine people who simply don’t look or sound like them. It took empathy on my part to realize that their fears were just as real as mine and just as wrong. I need to help them understand their fears and anxiety while doing whatever I can to help them lower the intensity of both. Then we can start to better understand and embrace each other.

It is imperative that both sides look with an open mind and accept that the vast majority of us are wonderful people that we need to learn more about. We need to start caring about their anxieties and fears and do whatever we can to help them, not make it worse. Only from inside our comfort zones where the anxiety and fear is low enough intensity can we begin to see each other for who we really are.

Stoking animosity, anxiety, fear, and hate has not been exclusive to the right nor the left. It is time for us to see this as a serious mental disorder that we have all been engaging in. I have my years of struggle and eventual victory with facing depression as a roadmap. That roadmap helped me to learn from anxiety and fear much faster and to get to a place that I would call anxiety ‘IN Order’ or fear ‘IN Order’ much faster. ‘IN Order’ does not mean I have no fear or anxiety. It means I understand their influence and at what intensity the focus should be on turning it down instead of allowing it to control my actions.

At intensities lower than the breaking point I can use the enhanced focus and questioning nature that is part of the fear/anxiety state to help me make better decisions than if those sources of information were missing. When I am comfortable with intensity of my fear and anxiety I can use them to my advantage. They help me instead of hurt me. As I get good at an intensity I find that I can now handle more intense states and they are even more full of insight. I was overwhelmed before and could only feel and act ‘out of control’ because I didn’t know how to act properly nor turn down the intensity.

It seems that millions of people are in states so far outside their comfort zone and are all acting badly. Until we understand this we will likely continue until we blow ourselves up.

We need to stop demonizing fear, anxiety, depression, mania, and the thousands of other states that we go through in life. For each feeling we need to ask ourselves a series of questions:

What levels of intensity are too much for me?

How do I turn the intensity down when I find myself too far outside of my comfort zone?

What can I do to become comfortable with the things that trigger the states?

How can understanding the states help Me not only understand others, but empathize with them so we can see each other’s commonality and begin to bridge the gap between our points of view?

How do the feelings inform me in ways that are useful and productive?

In what ways do the feelings mislead me?

With other people we can begin by asking each other in a very compassionate way, “What are your anxieties and fears? How can I help lower the intensity of them? How can I find commonality between the states you experience and the states I do? How can we educate each other about our concerns without creating irrational fear’s about each other? How can we share our anxieties and fears for the future without blaming it on each other?”

If we all start down that path now, the future is going to be better than any of us can imagine. We will always have anxieties and fears but we will better understand their risks and benefits. The risks are getting too far outside the comfort zone and not being able to turn it down or control our behaviors. The benefits are greater insights, empathy, and ability to live up to the better person we want to be. We will know how to act on them in ways that show we are informed by them instead of controlled by them. Denying them and hoping they will never happen again will never get us there. Let’s all learn from this election anxiety and use our new understanding to create the better world we all desire.

tomwootton

Tom Wootton founded Bipolar Advantage with the mission to help people with mental conditions shift their thinking and behavior so that they can lead extraordinary lives. His most recent work focuses on moving beyond recovery in bipolar disorder to what he calls Bipolar In Order.