Posted on 19 May 2017
You may be sighing as yet another of our politicians appears on your TV screen again. And it doesn’t seem two minutes ago that we had the referendum on Europe, then there were local elections, and if you are in Scotland . . . well!
Some people may love all this, but I am finding a different story from my hypnotherapy anxiety clients. Nearly everyone who has walked into my hypnotherapy anxiety clinics in Harley Street and Henley on Thames this week has mentioned the forthcoming election, and not in a good way.
People tell me they dislike the conflict, and the soundbites. When I talk to them I notice something else going on – a fear of the future and feeling uncomfortable about what appears to be an unknown future. It can feel like the old certainties are going and it is not clear what is going to replace them and that can make people feel anxious.
I have been reading a bit about this and have found that there is a fair amount of evidence that elections can cause stress and anxiety in voters. When elections get nasty and insults are being thrown around then that anxiety can get even worse.
This figure in particular really surprised me, in last year’s US presidential election, the American Psychological Association conducted a poll and found that 52 percent of Americans found the election a source of stress and anxiety. This crossed party lines with Democrats and Republicans coming out about equally and men and women came out about equal as well.
In this poll, and in others the 24-hour news cycle and social media seemed to play a role. There are two reasons for this, firstly it can feel like you cannot escape, the news is always on with rows running in the background. Social media again can seem ubiquitous and unpredictable. If political opinions are running high then people who spend a lot of time on social media may feel that their online friendships are under threat. And we know that arguments can be especially vicious online.
But even if there is a new modern twist there is also nothing new here. Back in 1903 there was a huge spike in a condition called neurasthenia: the label was used explain a whole range of symptoms which some would describe as psychosomatic today – skin conditions, insomnia, hypochondria fatigue, were all put down to the condition. Famous people were affected, including the president and the novelist Edith Wharton.
In a book about this called American Nervousness author Tom Lutz explains that this came at a time when the world was undergoing very rapid change. Industrialisation, faster transport, the beginning of films, people moving from the country to the cities and even the first air flights –all these things made it seem like the old certainties were going forever.
That is just one example, but there are loads throughout history. One thing is certain is that we cannot stop change and life will always contain uncertainty. The important thing is how well we cope with it, what our mental attitude is and how we take steps to feel comfortable within our core self whatever happens around us.
And I think there is good news there. It seems as if we are much more able to change our thinking patterns than we thought.
So, let’s look at change.
On the one hand, it is true that as a species we do not particularly embrace change and uncertainty – and there are good reasons for this. Change, stepping into the unknown, can be risky to our survival as a species. For most of the time we have been on this earth, change was not just risky, it was life-threatening. Any change could have been a disaster, we lived in small bands hunting and gathering, we stuck to the routes and paths we knew as we moved around during the natural cycle of the year; we knew just the people in our little bands. To step off our path or to greet new people or try new ways could have put our very lives and the lives of those closest to us at risk.
This behaviour is still with us today when we shun change – it is often labelled avoidance. We will go out of our way to keep away from the new but this can itself add to our feelings of anxiety as our lives become narrowed and constrained and we turn down opportunities which would be good for us.
So that is one side of the story, but this is not the whole story. We may not like change, but as a species we are the best learners and adapters in the known universe. We can learn new things, develop new skills and change how we think. And we can scientifically show this. Brain scanning technologies can now show us just how good we are at change, when we change our habits our brain patterns change as we make new neural pathways to facilitate the new behaviour.
Our thoughts and our behaviour can alter how our brains work and we can influence this. There is even a growing discipline around this called ‘self-directed neuroplasticity’ – that is using certain techniques to help our brains change. (If you want to know more about this I would recommend Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley’s book The Mind and The Brain.)
They show that by changing our thought patterns we can actually alter the structure of the brain. Techniques such as visualisation, mindfulness and directed thought can change our brain structures.
The more I read about this the more I realised that it fits so closely with how I work. When I work with clients who are anxious and distressed I know I will find that they have beliefs and ways of thinking which are holding them back. By getting to the root of the problem we can change those patterns. And it is great to know that this is backed up with the scientific evidence.
So, change is here, it is not going away. There will be elections after this one. Uncertainty and unpredictability are with us for good, so let’s get those mental habits and ways of thinking which can acknowledge this and keep happy and calm as well.
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