On Friday, January 20, at noon local time, Donald J. Trump will take the oath of office, thereby ascending into his role as the 45th president of the United States. It's an impending reality; one that will be met with pride by some, protest by others, a "Kryptonite"-fueled set list from 3 Doors Down, and the inconsolable truth that Twitter feuds over SNL episodes have somehow set a precedent for what we can expect to see over the next four years.
By now, Americans have been given a grand preface into just how uncertain our immediate future will be. The haphazard dismantling of Obamacare is already underway, with no viable replacement plan yet in sight. The Kremlin saga continues, as reports surface on whether or not Trump and Putin will hold their bromance summit in Reykjavik. Then there's the laundry list of just about everything in flux that has come to typify the incoming administration, which, if spelled out here, will likely become old news before it even posts.
But rather than breathing deeply, bracing for impact, or simply stress-eating Oreos and ice cream until 2020, there are constructive ways to put this all into perspective. And that process starts with understanding how fear and anxiety actually work, and then learning to manage those emotions long after the inauguration. Because rather than siding with the age-old adage "this, too, shall pass," Tonic is advocating for a more proactive approach: This shit is messed up, and here's how to cope.
First, let's talk about the basics. Scientists often label fear as an emotional state negatively triggered by a present threat. You're driving a car and suddenly another vehicle swerves in front of you. Your heart rate spikes, and you break into a sweat. That sequence of instinctual, immediate physical reactions is fear at work. On the other hand, anxiety is more of complex response to an anticipated threat, like agonizing over the thought of flying. In the words of famed neuroscientist Joseph Ledoux, who has spent his career studying the roots of fear in the brain, it is anxiety—not fear—that marks "an experience of uncertainty."
Yet often, we confuse the two. In a Chapman University survey studying the top ten fears of 2016, "corrupt government officials" ranked highest, by approximately 60.6 percent of respondents. "Terrorism" came in third (38.5 percent). But these fears are more indicative of a collective American anxiety—something shaped by the events of our time.
"We [expected] more classic fears, such as speaking in public, to be higher up on the list," Christopher Bader, the researcher who led the third annual survey back in October, says. "But our survey clearly picked up [on] an anti-government sentiment that was reflected in the recent election."
The American fear du jour has long been influenced by vivid events that dominate the news and the things most proximate to us. Hence, corrupt government officials and terrorism. Fear was an ever-present motif of the presidential election, with one poll reporting 80 percent of Trump supporters and 62 percent of Clinton supporters saying they would feel "scared" at the thought of the other candidate winning. Meanwhile, horrific tragedies in Nice, Orlando, Dhaka, Istanbul, Baghdad, Brussels, and Berlin—to, unfortunately, name just a few—turned anxiety into a global export, with every attack representing its own brand of terror that could play out in our minds like a continuous reel. Understandably, it seems whatever commands our attention also commands our deeper anxieties.
So what does that mean for our modern mental states? "More and more of us are walking around jacked up and hyper-aroused," Joan Cook, an associate professor at Yale University who specializes in traumatic stress, says, "We're searching the news and looking at our Twitter feeds…and we're getting caught up."
Cook has been studying trauma and PTSD for the past 20 years. Within that time, she's worked with 9/11 first responders, civilians who escaped the World Trade Center towers, former prisoners of war, and combat veterans. For individuals with PTSD, terrible world events can trigger past trauma, causing them to experience nightmares, hyperarousal, and to search and scan their surroundings for imminent danger.
Although the reactions of people with PTSD in stressful situations tend to be more pronounced and severe than those without it, Cook advises other Americans to protect themselves in a similar way she would her patients: by psychologically "self-distancing" from obvious triggers.
"This doesn't mean to bury your head in the sand or stick your fingers into your ears, but more thoughtfully disconnect," she explains. "We need to pause, reflect, get perspective, and come back rebooted. If we're in that high anxiety [mode], we're not thinking clearly."
Example: If you find yourself getting overly affected by the stream of terrible news events around the world, start by chucking your phone across the room. Turn off the source of the stress. Partake in a moderate vice. Even watching a video of this cat adopting a spider monkey will likely be more emotionally beneficial than keeping track of the latest ways Republicans are devising to defund Planned Parenthood.
And, yes, we're serious. A recent study from the journal Computers in Human Behavior states that participants who consumed "cat-related content" on the Internet reportedly felt significantly happier and energized after watching those furry viral mavens in play.
But while self-distancing is about understanding when to actively disengage, that doesn't mean we get a free pass to drop out of the world. In fact, one of the healthiest ways to combat more prolonged feelings of fear and anxiety is by joining a social group that can offer a sense of support. Instead of lamenting the fate of the country in private Facebook groups, participate in something that is going to gear policies in the direction you'd like to see. Anxious about the inauguration? Join what is slated to become one of the largest demonstrations in this country's history—or any of the 300 local protests across all 50 states—which are scheduled take place on Saturday, January 21.
Rather than shut down in the presence of a threat, it's important to reclaim a sense of control. "Volunteer. Get politically active. Help a refugee family get settled in," David Ropeik, the author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match The Facts, says, "You have to know what's going on, but don't be an awareness victim."
Ropeik, an expert in risk perception at Harvard, has explored why people fear certain things over others. One of the most common factors, he says, is that we are typically more afraid of what we consider to be outside of our control.
Ropeik further understands just how often human emotions can lead to what he's dubbed the "risk-perception gap," or the idea that when we over- or under-fear certain threats, those mistaken perceptions create problems all by themselves. Basically, by being too scared or not scared enough, sometimes, even worse things can happen.
For example, according to the Guardian, one German risk expert estimated that 1,595 more Americans than usual died in car-accident deaths in the year following the September 11th terrorist attacks. This was thought to be an indirect toll linked to the fear of flying, and the increased number of cars on the road.
"Most of the ways that we perceive risk happens behind the scenes, if you will. We don't think about this consciously. It kind of just happens," Ropeik explains. "The deeper fear is the fear [that] we don't have control over how our lives are going."
Which brings us back to Trump. Fear was often cited as a driving force behind the election results, where a large swath of the country felt they no longer had control over their fates. But it shouldn't be something that dominates our lives during the upcoming presidency.
So instead of agonizing over worst-case scenarios, Ropeik advises to instead refocus one's mindset on small, achievable tasks that will provide a sense of control and leave you feeling more empowered. Learn pottery. Take your dog for a walk. Engage in an afternoon romp. Some other classic examples include daily exercise, practicing breathing techniques, and making a to-do list of household tasks. But studies suggest there are other unconventional means to quelling anxiety, like staring at fractals—repeating geometric patterns (e.g., snowflakes)—or listening to a stellar playlist.
Above all else, though, it's important to remember that feelings of anxiety and fear are natural, and to some degree, inevitable. Our brains are hard-wired to worry—more than anything, they serve to protect us and detect potential threats. It's little wonder, then, why anxieties spike in the wake of uncertainty.
While taking yourself out of the news cycle may be a temporary remedy to fear and anxiety, it's not exactly a cure. Instead, the way in which we put the information we hear and mentally process into context is key. That often means recognizing the fact that the worst-case scenario isn't necessarily the most probable. While it may sound easier said than done, slowing down your thoughts and staying focused on what you do have control over in Trump's America will hopefully make life after January 20th a little more manageable.