How to stress less in the face of uncertainty | Guest op

  • Thursday, May 18, 2017 5:30pm
  • Opinion

The political climate we are all facing is intense, to say the least. You can’t get online or turn on your TV without being faced with contentious and divisive opinions from both political parties when it comes to a new era of health care reform. It’s inevitable there will continue to be anger and fear about the future, regardless of the outcome of the American Health Care Act.

Uncertainty and new policies are creating real risks. Many people I talk to at work are understandably worried that they will soon not be able to get health care, their friends or family may be deported, or they may be discriminated against for their sexual identity.

For those who are struggling, I’d like to share some advice about managing fears and worries. This advice can be applied to any anxious situation, whether you consider yourself liberal, conservative or just plain-old American.

What I call the Three Step Plan for Worry consists of 1, checking the facts; 2, making a plan; and 3, practicing mindfulness and acceptance.

1. Check the facts: When people are worried, they’re prone to “catastrophize.” They imagine the worst case scenario and believe it’s likely to happen. “If the American Health Care Act passes, I’m no longer going to have health insurance,” or “the government will immediately start rounding up undocumented immigrants for deportation.” Bold campaign promises often fade after the election and reality sets in.

The best way to counteract the increased anxiety that catastrophizing can cause is to get educated. Learn the facts and look to multiple factual, level-headed sources for your information, avoiding the fear-mongering and sensationalist ones. Nobody really knows yet what a repeal or reform of Obamacare might look like. We in the health care industry have spent the past six years implementing it and know a ship that big doesn’t change course on a dime. I want to emphasize here, the point of this step is to assess what the actual risks are and not pretend things are wonderful when they are not. But we often overestimate the risk when we are intensely afraid.

2. Make a plan: After your research, you can make a more accurate assessment of risk. And guess what? A lot of times there is a lot of risk, just maybe not as much as you first guessed. Medicaid expansion and government subsidies for commercial insurance are likely to stick around for a year or two, but what about after that? This is where it’s a good thing we are all programmed to have anxiety. Anxiety is there to help us pay attention to risk and keep us safe from danger. Anxiety tells us that it’s time to make a plan and figure out what you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones from harm.

As time passes, and we start to learn what changes may occur to your health insurance, you should be talking to your doctor and other health professionals about what to do for your health care. As we learn what health care policies may go into effect, it will be important to figure out how to keep the people you care about from being affected. Having a plan of action goes a long way to reducing anxiety, which you should expect to feel if you haven’t yet figured out what to do.

3. Practice mindfulness and acceptance: There are some dangers and risks that we just don’t have the power to change, or sometimes there is nothing we can do about it now. We need to wait and see. If this is the case, it’s time for mindfulness and acceptance practice. Worrying in order to make a plan of action is extremely helpful. Worrying just for the sake of worrying is not. There is no way to completely avoid risk and danger in this world. All you can do is make a plan as best you can to protect yourself and your family and then do your best to live in the moment and make the best of what you have.

Learning mindfulness techniques, similar to meditation, helps people gain control of their out-of control worry, live more in the present moment, instead of in the future or in the past, and lead a more positive and fulfilling life. There are lots of good resources online to help you start mindfulness practice.

If you find yourself struggling with intense anxiety, hopefully you will find the Three Step Plan for Worry helpful. Please know that anxiety is a common and treatable condition, and there are many mental health care providers you can visit for help.

Dr. Brian Allender, M.D., is a psychiatrist and the chief medical officer at Valley Cities Behavioral Health Care.

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