This has been the most rancid election cycle I’ve ever experienced, and although I generally have a good working filtration system for mental toxins, this year has hit me a bit like a sudden surge of sewage into the treatment plant. I’ve had to be more proactive in my “detox systems” to allow me to not just crawl in a hole and pull the dirt over me, nor become so overwhelmed by the toxic sludge that I can’t function, either way risking depression.
So here are ten possible anti-depressants. While they are generically useful when it comes to depression, they strike me as particularly useful during this amazing year. As ever with a list like this, you want to try them like you’d throw spaghetti at a wall: if it sticks, great, it’s cooked and will be digestible. If it falls on the floor, leave it for the dog and move on to another one till you find one(s) that work for your particular self. Here we go.
- Take action: This is a tricky one, because for most of us, we have very little power when it comes to a national election, and if we move into an active role (campaigning, blogging, even Facebook debates) without an acceptance of our limited power and influence, we actually will increase our risk of depression. With depression, our attitude is much more important than our actions. So if you can engage with surrender, you push back against powerlessness without clinging to a fantasy or grandiose notion of “What should happen, dammit!” Do the part you are drawn to play, and surrender the results to the universe.
- Grieve: Feel your feelings and let them pass, specifically your feelings of sadness and/or anger at the state of affairs. Depression is not so simple as “delayed grief,” but that is a part of it. Feel the suck of this election and take a noble responsibility for your own pain. This world, and this country, are going through huge sea changes: massive global economic shift, vast upheavals from science and technology, changes in the nature of culture and identity that shred older conceptions and beliefs, and according to philosophers Gafni and Stein, a panicked coming to terms with our mortality as a species. We are seeing the impact of Big Stuff Changing, and with all changes in what we have been attached to (even if we didn’t know it). If we don’t grieve what we’ve lost in all this change, feeling the pain and sadness and anger, we’ll express that grief as some version of fanaticism (clinging tightly to what is already lost), or some form of collapse and despair (the futility of depression). Like it or not, to stay engaged and healthy this year, we have to feel the suck.
- Limit inputs and sort information based on quality: Don’t read everything! I was rather compulsively soaking in whatever was coming through my Facebook feed and Yahoo’s aggregator, and it took a few months to realize what a bad idea that was. I started paying attention to the sources of the “news reports” I was taking in, and what they’re allegiances were, and noticed that most were from ideological outlets with consistent biases, few were journalistically rigorous, and none held a larger perspective on events. They were useful to reinforce a point of view, but to be informed without being propagandized, they were worse than useless. That’s not anything new, but iIn my underlying anxiety, the idea that getting more and more information would make me feel safe got traction, and I was consuming like a hungry person at a dubious buffet. Be careful with what you take in. Make sure it’s actually information, and not just opinion that cherry picks its preferred facts and feeds fear and futility.
- Resist tribalism: Don’t abandon our common humanity. Admittedly, humans have lived tribally for a lot longer than they’ve lived with a sense of pan-human belonging. And as usual, when we get scared or overwhelmed, we retrench to older strategies and modes. As Traci Ruble points out in her article on Psyched, Trump (and for the Right, Clinton) are not the Other, but aspects of our selves. As wired as we are scapegoat and project badness onto the Other (“Our village is good, but the one over the hill, they’re barely even human!”), we have to hold tight to the modern values and recognitions that have taken eons to emerge. We may not want to identify with the Them, but if we don’t, we embrace a kind of neo-tribalism which always is implicit in the destruction of the Other. There’s no progress or development without this.
- Check your stories: What ideology are you clinging to? When a time is so polarized as this one, we have to take a good look at where our allegiance lies. By asking, “What do I actually believe in?” we drag our biases out into the light where we can explore them consciously and rationally. More importantly (whether we thereby change or validate our opinions), we label them properly, as beliefs. To not do so is to enshrine our opinions as concrete reality, or beliefs as facts, which both neuters dialogue and walls ourselves up into a belief we can’t explore the truthfulness of. This also will either lead to fanaticism (“No way but our way!”) or depression (“Obviously, it’s all going to hell!”). Know your beliefs as beliefs to guard against both.
- Take the long view: Don’t deny the present, but put it in context. Humans have been around a long time, and have had recorded history also for a long time, and what you can see in the historical record is what MLK said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Humans have a lot of rancidness in them, for sure, and we express it in times of stress and change (like now). But hopelessness is not borne out by the actual data; measured by greater access to resources, justice, freedom of identity and affiliation, wisdom about psychology, parenting, social health—all of which are, overall, better than a hundred years ago, two hundred, a thousand. Dogmatic, authoritarian structures have fallen over and over. Study the “long arc” and take solace.
- Faith: Wherever you draw your faith from, don’t lose it. Not rigid beliefs—those are not actually faith. Faith is the willingness to project goodness into the unknown. There are a lot of uncertainties now, but we can’t get away from the need for this essential faith, and we’re either going to have it in a basic belief in goodness…or not. The former is connecting, is safe, is motivating; the latter is depressing, is demotivating (or motivates fanatical action), is disconnecting. Since faith by definition is not data driven, we have a choice to be made, and I’d strongly suggest, for your and others’ health, to choose the faith in goodness. It works better.
- Regular self-reflection: Both the fanatic and the depressive don’t self-reflect. Self-reflection is where we step back from our assumptions, beliefs, experience, sensations, and look mindfully and objectively at what is there. Fanatics and ideologues don’t want to do that because they rely on the supposed concreteness of their opinion, on the claim to know Reality; depressives don’t reflect because it’s all futile anyway. But to reflect is to get out of the bubble of belief and look at what the observational reality is, which is the only way that change happens, and the only way to maintain health, to not get trapped in some mood or story. Whether through meditation, or psychotherapy, journaling, or inquiry discussions with comrades, we have to practice self-reflection to stay healthy.
- Exercise: You gotta move, but not just as a puppeteering of the body, but actually experiencing and being in the body by working it. The body doesn’t hold ideology; the body is in the present, burbling along, just doing its pleasant or painful thing, until thoughts come along to say what’s right or wrong. The body is a real refuge from the crazy realm of human beliefs and stories, because the body is just being itself without a past or future. Exercise, particularly vigorous, gross-muscle and aerobic, with mindfulness, is an essential way to remind yourself that opinions and stories are, at the end of the day, just and only that.
- Humor: We wouldn’t have gotten so far as a species without humor. Find the humor in all this madness, because it’s there. Both the depressive and fanatical minds veer towards humorlessness, because humor is the engagement of a wider perspective that holds both hope and grief. If you find yourself becoming humorless, unplug from the news-of-the-day, and open the gates to the comedians and satirists. Like a canary in a coal mine, when you’re humor dies, you’re getting into a serious situation.
Even with the intensity of this particular election, if we commit to taking care of ourselves, it’s possible for us to get through with our humanity in tact, and without being flooded by despair.