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Carol W. Berman, M.D. Headshot

How to Alleviate Stress During the Government Shutdown

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Even though many Americans disengaged psychologically from our state and federal governments' activities a long time ago, a government shutdown can still be stressful. The majority of my patients had a reaction a lot like my patient Joe (not his real name).

"The government? So they shut down. Big deal. What else can you expect from those idiots?" he said.

Joe was a heavy-set, middle-aged man who worked in the garment industry. His main issue had been panic attacks, in which he'd experience a racing heart, shortness of breath, and the feeling that he would die. His panic attacks interrupted his life five to six times per day. Fortunately, Joe and I worked together to rid him of those attacks through psychotherapy and a low dosage of antidepressants.

Joe felt he had more important issues to worry about than the government shutdown, especially since it did not trigger more panic attacks and just seemed to him like annoyance.

What Joe didn't realize was that he was reacting to the shutdown with more than just annoyance. On an unconscious level he was stressed and anxious. I heard that he was yelling at his wife, feeling enraged when he was stuck in traffic, and being curt with fellow employees at work.

Whether we are engaged with our government or not, it's human nature to have an unconscious transference to our authority figures, including our political leaders. Transference traditionally means that we transfer our feelings from respected loved ones, like parents, onto our therapists. The concept of transference has widened to include transferring our feelings onto other authority figures such as teachers, bosses, and political leaders. Joe was unconsciously feeling negative transference to the people who shut down the government.

Like other patients I work with, the shutdown had disturbing effects on him. He was walking around angry, probably with higher blood pressure. If he continues to harbor this negative transference without making it conscious, he might experience panic attacks, get depressed, or act out aggressively against other people.

My suggestions to him were:

1. Try to monitor your feelings and express them as much as possible. Joe was engaged in weekly psychotherapy so he had a venue for expression. If people aren't in therapy, they can discuss feelings with close friends or family members.

2. Breathe. In my experience, people who practice conscious breathing exercises feel a reduction in their stress levels and generally more control of their emotions.

3. Take a break from the stress by exercising. Joe liked to work out with weights, which I thought was a good way to relieve his suppressed anger. Any kind of exercise that gets the blood pumping and the muscles engaged works to alleviate stress.

4. Be sure not to use food as a stress reliever. Joe had gained about 20 pounds during his panic attack period. When he felt one coming on, he would cram down donuts and other high-sugar, high-carb foods.

5. Find a creative outlet. Joe built miniature train sets. He had done this with his sons when they were young, and he continued the hobby after they were grown. Any kind of model building, gardening, painting, or writing helps relieve stress and provides an outlet for daily frustration.

In our last session, Joe turned to me and said, "By the way there's something I meant to bring up."

"Go ahead," I said. "What is it?"

"I told you I don't want to talk about my father when we discuss my family. Yet you are constantly asking me questions about him. Don't you ever listen to what I'm saying?" He turned red and sat on the edge of his chair in a confrontational stance.

"Of course I listen to you. It's just that I need certain facts about him to help you, but you don't have to answer them now if you don't feel like it."

He was definitely having negative transference to me. Finally, after all that work we'd done, trying to get him in touch with his anger, it was happening. His bad feelings about his father that he didn't want to talk about were getting poured onto me.

My job was to accept what was happening and at the right time interpret the information for him. Maybe I even had to thank the government shutdown for moving him forward in this way.

For more by Carol W. Berman, M.D., click here.

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