For Alaskans dealing with veto-induced anxiety, a therapist offers advice

With Alaska headed toward massive cuts to its university system, social services and other state-funded programs, many Alaskans are expressing frustration, sadness and anxiety.

Simply put, the uncertainty over state politics and the cuts is getting to people.

Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove spoke with licensed professional counselor Julie Shewman for advice on dealing with the stress.

Grove: Hi, Julie.

Shewman: Hi there. How are you doing Casey?

Grove: I’m doing OK. Have you ever been a therapist for thousands of people on the radio all at once?

Shewman:  This will be a first. Speaking of anxiety…

Grove: You’ll be fine. Obviously we don’t want to get too specific, but in general are you hearing about this stuff from the people that you talk to?

Shewman: Absolutely. We’ve been hearing about this across the board, therapists that I work with, this kind of pervasive fear, and that fear, that perceived threat that people are feeling across the political continuum, comes across as anxiety, stress, trouble sleeping, all kinds of things, and we’re all definitely seen that in our practices.

Grove: What is this? Where does this come from?

Shewman: When we have a perception of threat, that creates stress, and so for any of us, a little bit of stress is OK, That’s the stress that produces the chemicals in our brain that kind of primes us to do something, prime us to action. A little bit of stress, little bit of anxiety, is OK. It helps us with a job interview for instance. When it becomes overwhelming, we lose that ability to be in our front brain, our prefrontal cortex, we lose that ability and that part of our brain goes offline, and we’re into our limbic brain, our emotional brain. And then if the threat’s big enough, we actually go into our reptile brain, which the survival brain: fight (or) flea. What do I do to keep myself safe? How do I survive this? And so if the threats seem big enough, we end up in that part of the brain.

Grove: You mentioned some of these things, but how does this express itself?

Shewman: You know, it can come out in different ways. People feeling more irritable.  People feeling like unsettled, uncomfortable, kind of a sense that things just don’t seem right. Like I said, insomnia — to add to the Alaska daylight and our recent heat wave — the insomnia that comes from this, again, this sense of being under attack, of feeling unsafe, of feeling these threats. And the threats are real, I mean we have to be honest, the threats to people’s livelihoods, to their financial security. Those threats create fear for people.

Grove: My sense of it is that you can’t just tell people it’s just going to be OK, everything’s going to work out fine, because it might not, right? So what do you tell people?

Shewman: The worst thing you can tell somebody who’s upset is, “Well calm down or relax,” and that message doesn’t come through. What you can tell people, if you’re living with someone or you have friends who are particularly upset or if you’re struggling with it, too, there are a lot of different things you can do. The first thing I would recommend is to notice what’s really stirring your fears. What is it that keeps that fire stoked, and for a lot of people it’s reading unbalanced media, it is social media, Facebook, those kinds of things, seeing the memes that come across. If that’s what’s stoking your fear and keeping that heightened sense of alert, I really recommend that people step back to take a break from social media, take a break from reading the news, looking for friends to talk to, connecting with people, with real people.

Grove: There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of different reasons for people to be anxious about things, and this is pretty specific, but what do you tell somebody who’s specifically worried about losing their job, they don’t know if that’s going to happen or not and they’re just wondering about what their future is going to be?

Shewman: You can help folks to realize, to step back and to see that they do have options. They may not be great options. They may not be the options they had planned for themselves, but a lot of folks feeling like, “I’m going to lose my job, and what is that going to mean, and how will I take care of my family?” (it’s) helping them to kind of start exploring options. What kinds of things can we start looking at? Also realizing, “Yes, you know, if these cuts go through, there are going to be significant changes in our state, but it’s not happening tomorrow. So kind of helping to take off the time pressure and say, “You have time to make adjustments to these changes,” and again, really opening people’s eyes up to the options that they might have.