Every time I’ve written a politically oriented Health Tip, a few people become upset by my Lefty opinions, tell me to stick with what I know (I assume they mean medicine), and unsubscribe to this newsletter. Some have snarled, “I’m transferring my records out of WholeHealth Chicago” and off they go. So, here I go again. As you read this, please keep in mind that this is my opinion and is not necessarily the opinion of others at WholeHealth Chicago.
In the days following the election I kept hearing stories like these from my patients:
- “I sat in front of the TV watching the returns with tears pouring down my face.”
- “I am so stressed about this I feel sick.”
- “I’m obsessing about Roe v Wade and back-alley abortions, deeply worried about my gay friends (black friends, Mexican friends, Muslim friends), climate change, animals going extinct, my health insurance, Syrian children, and busloads of deported people and I can’t stop crying.”
- “I feel constantly angry, frustrated, sad, and horrified.”
- “I have to confess, I doubled my Lexapro.”
In one of his first TV interviews, when asked if he had a message for Americans, the president-elect said he wanted to tell the voters who didn’t support him not to be afraid. He kept repeating, “Don’t be afraid…don’t be afraid.”
Now that is scary, especially as he packs his staff with some of the most frightening people in politics, including his racist, misogynistic, anti-Muslim, gay-bashing, and anti-Semitic chief strategist Steve Bannon.
What’s especially troubling is that Americans apparently know so little about 20th century European history, when by demonizing minorities (Jews, “gypsies,” Communists) Adolph Hitler became chancellor and then surrounded himself with some of the most notorious evildoers (Goebbels, Goering, et. al.) in the history of the world.
When you see the first busloads of Hispanic/Latino families forced from their homes, struggling with suitcases, boarding buses and trains that will pass through Trump’s wall and return empty, you (yes, you!) better start thinking about what you’ll tell your grandkids when years from now they ask why you didn’t help.
Now let’s talk about the stress you’ve been feeling and its effects on your body. Stress can be defined as any situation where you’ve relinquished your life to something beyond your control. You might feel symptoms of stress–insomnia, anger, depression, a knot in your stomach—when you’re trapped in a toxic job, a toxic relationship, or living in a toxic place.
“I hate my job but I stay because I need the insurance.” “I hate my boyfriend, but without him I’m alone.”
We feel stress about the election results because we think we’ll lose control of our destinies: our lives, our bodies, our country, and even our planet. Yes, you’re entitled to your sleepless nights.
The effect of any sustained stress puts us in perpetual fight-or-flight mode. The fight-or- flight system, which all mammals have, was designed to momentarily enhance your efficiency in an emergency. Fight or flight commands you to “Run!” “Hit!” “Scream!” but there’s a large sign attached that reads “For emergency use only.”
Fight or flight is ideally only used to wallop a mugger, rescue a child, or lift a car off someone.
Perpetual stress, on the other hand, wreaks physical and emotional hell with our bodies. Everything goes south: heart, lungs, digestion, reproduction, immunity, and emotions. It’s the constant lump in your throat or knot in your stomach. You sleep poorly and you’re tired all the time. You try to feel better with a tub of Ben and Jerry’s and then get even more stressed when you gain ten pounds. Enjoyable sex is a distant memory.
But hold on.
Stress can be good
Not all stress is the same. This is bad stress I’ve been talking about, but there’s also good stress and, yes, this positive, creative stress is going to be our salvation.
Good stress might on its face appear stressful except for the fact that, curiously, you’re rather enjoying yourself. Picture a doctor in charge of a super-busy emergency room, surrounded by utter chaos, an epicenter of stress, but she wouldn’t trade it for the world. That’s because she’s in complete control. She’s the Ricardo Muti of chaos.
Now here’s an example of political good stress. Take a look at the PBS documentary “Freedom Summer,” the 1964 story of busloads of young people traveling to Mississippi to help with voter registration. It was frightening, it was dangerous, and three of the volunteers were brutally murdered, but it gave participants a sense of pride and accomplishment they remembered all their lives.
For years, I’ve been hearing my own kids complain about how lucky I was to be alive and politically active in the 1960s. They thought the 90s and the 2000s were boring. Nothing was happening and even the music was terrible. But in the 1960s people acted on their sense of right and wrong. “Dad, it must have been great.”
Actually, much of the 1960s was painted with horrible images: body bags from Viet Nam, little girls murdered in church fires. But the 1960s generated stress that spurred people, especially young people, into action, culminating in 1969 in Woodstock, the best concert ever.
So you want to deal with your stress?
Become very political. Join a group or organize something yourself. Show up for meetings. Volunteer and donate if you can. At last count, 46,000 people had donated to Planned Parenthood in Mike Pence’s name. And there are many more causes worthy of your support.
Rise up angry. Make a fist and thrust it skyward. Take time off in January to join the Women’s March on Washington. Fling a used tampon on the White House lawn. Get a copy of Bernie Sanders’ new book Our Revolution: A Future To Believe In. As you plan your goals, you’ll feel your muscles relax and the lump in your throat disappear.
And finally, if it’s at all reassuring, Trump may not be the worst president to be assuming office. You might be too young to remember, but that dubious distinction goes to the second term of Richard Nixon. Since Nixon recorded for posterity virtually every oval office conversation, we know he hated blacks and Jews, was a falling-down drunk, wanted to nuke much of Southeast Asia, and approved the Watergate burglary.
He was forced out of office two years later. Fortunately, vice president Spiro Agnew couldn’t succeed him because Agnew had resigned in disgrace a few months earlier for taking bribes.
So think about it. Aside from the considerable damage he may do to civil liberties, do we believe Trump’s obscene track record will be swept under the rug in 2017 and beyond? He’ll be too busy defending his web of lies to ever be an effective president. Just days ago, rather than go to court he settled the Trump University class action lawsuit for $25 million; others will follow. Lawsuits against villains are very emotionally satisfying.
As for supporting your own health and wellbeing, keep to a solid sleep schedule and eat nourishing whole foods. Exercise, focusing on the big three—flexibility, strength training, and cardio/aerobic. Marching, shouting, and carrying protest signs all qualify as good cardio.
Keep in mind, too, this from Margaret Atwood.
“The fabric of democracy is always fragile everywhere because it depends on the will of citizens to protect it, and when they become scared, when it becomes dangerous for them to defend it, it can go very quickly.”
David Edelberg, MD