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What experts say about mental health during times of social and political tension

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Photo Illustration by Selena Quintanilla | The Daily Wildcat

A UA student studies for a final on Dec. 3, 2016. Some stress in college, especially around finals week, is to be expected, but if it persists, you may be suffering from anxiety.

“The pandemic and the chaos that’s going on around us is, to me anyway, a clear invitation for all of us to go a little bit more inward,” said Dr. Noshene Ranjbar, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

With an upcoming presidential election in November, social unrest resulting from acts of police brutality and violence, animosity within COVID-19 debates and decision-making and much more, it is clear to many: Things are tense. 

In a politically divided America, tension has always existed, but at this point in time, many are becoming overwhelmed to the point of crisis fatigue, depression, anxiety and high-stress-related mental health issues. 

“We are seeing this in some of the folks we talk to,” said Jan Courtney, coordinator of Eating Disorder Services for UA Campus Health. “There can be a feeling that there is so much unrest, unhappiness and unfairness in the country and that we have little control over it.”

Marlise Karlin, founder and CEO of SOS Method, explained that the political and social climate could be creating chronic stress in many. 

“Your outer environment creates chronic stress,” Karlin said. “Look what’s happening in our world right now. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. There is huge social unrest. There is constant political uprising of one against the other. So, there is tremendous chaos surrounding our outer environment all the time.” 

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According to Dr. Francisco Moreno, a professor of psychiatry in the UA College of Medicine and associate vice president for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at UA Health Sciences, said people that are already more susceptible to mental health struggles, such as victims of racism, classism, food insecurity and economic instability could be especially vulnerable during times of social and political unrest. 

Many of these groups are victims of the injustices fueling social and political unrest. 

“Those that are disadvantaged in a number of ways, including those that are perceiving these stresses on an ongoing basis, they could be traumatized by the sort of insidious but persistent patterns of injustices that they are living in or living with,” Moreno said. 

A reason for the heightened stress among disadvantaged social groups that may be present during these times, Moreno explained, could be the greater tension created by renewed dialogue on injustice. 

Even though this renewed dialogue is beneficial in regard to shedding light on important issues, it also tends to come with opposition. 

For example, as the Black Lives Matter movement gains traction and support and provides a platform for people all over the country who have been victims of racism, fierce opposition of the movement has also arisen and created tension. 

Patricia Harrison-Monroe, the vice chair of the UA Department of Psychiatry in the College of Medicine, explained that this could be relatively traumatizing for many. 

“There’s a difference in how political tension and social unrest affects those who are of a minority status, for example, who may be the target of some of the rhetoric,” Monroe said. “I am thinking about some of our DACA students, some refugees for example, who may have personally experienced some of the verbal or physical violence that has kind of grabbed the national and even international attention.” 

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For those who are disproportionately affected by mental health issues during times of social and political unrest, Monroe described the importance of monitoring the effect that a steady flow of news has on mental health. 

“The stress of living within a 24-hour news cycle where you continuously get more and new and updated information, that can be overwhelming," Monroe said. "And you might want to consider limiting how much news you watch, how many feeds you’re participating in, who you’re following on Twitter, etc."

Monroe also suggested that people can maintain mental health by becoming engaged in meaningful ways in their communities. 

This helps people to take part in making a change with issues they are passionate about and they are affected by, and to seek social connection. 

While social and political unrest could act as a “call to action” to many, it could otherwise create a sense of hopelessness or create extreme stress in others, especially among vulnerable groups, Monroe explained. 

“While low or moderate levels of stress can actually be energizing and motivate us to want to complete projects or achieve goals, excessive stress definitely has a negative impact — emotionally and physically — and can include things like excessive worrying, irritability and sadness or hopelessness.” 

A major factor which contributes to poor mental health during times of social and political tension and unrest is anger-fueled rhetoric among people. 

Whether it is through social media or animosity from human to human, uncontrolled anger toward the opposition can both damage mental health and also tends to be socially unproductive, according to Ranjbar. 

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“Our nervous system and brain is much more responsive to finding points of connection and similarity and deeper human understanding and connection,” Ranjbar said. “On the other extreme, our limbic system, which is the fight or flight or freeze, tends to really get activated the moment we don’t feel safe and we feel attacked and we feel like we're in a place where we’re even seeing eye-to-eye with another person.” 

Among the primary age group of University of Arizona students, much of this animosity and anger-fueled rhetoric takes place on social media. A constant overload of negative, angering and saddening information on social media and tension between users can have detrimental effects on mental health. 

“The effect is an increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness,” Courtney said. 

To address this, the “pursuit of understanding of each other” is a mindset which Moreno believes is healthy during times like these. 

Despite how difficult it may be to create some sort of togetherness with people who have very different beliefs, people are much more at peace when taking “our shared humanity” into consideration, according to Ranjbar. 

Ranjbar also explained that this shared humanity approach is more effective in truly getting through to somebody that has differing views.

In this regard, Moreno brought up the idea of a “growth mindset” rather than a “fixed mindset.” This means that rather than always being in attack mode amid political discourse, people can look at all conversation and dialogue as an opportunity to grow the mind and spirit. 

During in-person argumentation, Karlin explained that sometimes just taking a few deep breaths can really ease things into less stressful situations. She explained that by taking a few deep breaths can shift the energy field into one that is calmer and less tense, which creates an easier environment to have productive, less angering conversations. 

Additionally, Moreno and Courtney both suggested people ensure they are consuming reliable sources of information. 

“We need to be adequately informed, we need to be sufficiently informed and we need to be reliably informed,” Moreno said. “Otherwise, you’re living in a fallacy and that doesn’t help anybody’s mental health to be living outside of the realms of reality.”

For those who work to make a difference during these times and to stand up against injustice, there is no doubt that societal tension can put a strain on mental health. 

When people choose to be activists, they choose to consume frequent disheartening information, to expose themselves to pressing issues facing society and to sometimes even get themselves into tense situations with people of opposing views. 

There are certainly ways to be an effective activist while maintaining mental health, though. 

Monroe explained that activism takes on a variety of different forms from marching in the streets to not remaining silent in the presence of injustice. Thus, people must find what forms of activism works for them. 

If a form of activism causes someone to neglect oneself or their priorities, it may be time to take a step back. On the other hand, some may see activism as something worth the struggles. In this case, seeking mental health support while continuing to be an activist could be beneficial, Monroe said. 

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Ranjbar stressed the idea of being a mindful activist. This involves letting one’s activism be an extension of wisdom and inner thought. 

“In ancient history, there was a division between the people who went inward like the monks and the monastery and then others who were doing the work in the world, but I think what we need now is for everyone to be doing a balance of the two,” Ranjbar said. “To sit with the sadness and the disappointment and the anger and the frustration and work through those things in the inner world so that when we’re actually advocating and speaking up and being of service, we’re coming from a place of wisdom and not just from a place of vitriol and disagreements.” 

The overarching question during times of social and political unrest is how one can be positive and mentally healthy when there is so much negativity in society. Moreno explained that during times like these, it is important to intentionally work on mental health and wellness. This means being intentional about going outside into fresh air, working to be optimistic and minimizing tension. 

Recently, it has been easier for things to be tense between people, especially within close proximity of each other due to more sheltering in place. Moreno said that this is “our time to shine” and to show the most acceptance of others because “if we keep that same attitude that we keep with people from other groups, we bring it to the people that are immediately next to us.” 

Moreno also advised that people try to limit drug and alcohol use during these times. 

“Under periods of stress, when people are consuming more drugs and alcohol to cope as opposed to doing proactive wellness seeking behaviors, that’s an indicator that things are not going as well as we wish they would,” Moreno said. 

Maintaining hope is a key component that Monroe stressed in maintaining mental wellness during these times. 

“Human beings are kind of the only species that have a capacity to foresee a better future and to wonder about and say, 'Oh, this could be, this is what might be,'" Monroe said. “We’re the only species that can do that and I think it’s important to cultivate that within oneself.”

Monroe and Courtney both suggested people try to practice gratitude. 

“Studies show that gratitude is a simple practice that can greatly affect mental health,” Courtney said. “Start a gratitude journal and write down those things for which you are grateful. Spending just a couple of minutes first thing in the morning and/or just before you go to sleep, coming up with three things for which you are grateful can improve your overall mood.”

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Ranjbar suggested that people have a regular practice of releasing negative emotions and energy. This can involve having a physical practice such as sports or yoga, or making sure to cry when it's needed, or just speaking to people. 

“Emotions, when they are not released and cleared on a regular basis, can get stuck in our system like stuck energy in the body,” Ranjbar said. “So, like, you might notice how sometimes when we’re frustrated or anxious, we’ll start getting tensions in different parts of the body — pain, aches, anxiety, depression — in many ways those are symptoms and signs of these negative energies getting stuck somewhere because we have not had a chance to release.”

Movement, crying, sweating and speaking are all modes of releasing these energies, Ranjbar explained. Other natural mechanisms, even as small as yawning, can play a role. Stress is a very physical entity. 

Karlin stressed the power of building mindfulness resiliency through time and practice. 

“You have to learn the tools that work for you and repeat them,” Karlin said. 


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