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Coping with the shutdown: The best medicine is laughter

WASHINGTON – How’s this for irony: The federal government shutdown started on the first day of National Depression Month.

A lot of federal workers are dealing with feelings of anxiety, angst and even sadness, but there are ways to beat the shutdown blues.

“Humor is a great salve for pain,” says Dr. Thomas Wise, medical director of behavioral services at Inova Fairfax Hospital.

In fact, he says it is one of the best treatments around for feelings of hopelessness and helplessness — emotions federal workers may experience as the shutdown drags on.

Wise says it is OK to laugh at yourself and to have a chuckle over the irony of the situation. It doesn’t matter if your favorite comic is named Letterman, Stewart, Leno, Colbert or Fallon — all provide plenty of fodder for smiles.

But Wise says anyone who can’t smile at a joke, and has totally lost his/her sense of humor, may want to check-in with a mental health professional. It could be an indication of a deeper sadness or depression.

He says he doesn’t expect many people to come down with significant mental health disorders during the shutdown, though he has seen an uptick in visits to Inova’s out-patient clinics.

Instead, Wise says it’s more likely that federal workers will show signs of “demoralization” — a sense of being sad, depressed and hopeless, due to the inability to change things.

“That doesn’t rise to the level of a psychiatric disorder, but it certainly is common and causes an awful lot of pain, irritability and a variety of other symptoms,” he says.

Another way to cope is to stay focused on the big picture, reminding yourself that the shutdown will eventually end and the government will go back to work. Wise also suggests reaching out to your friends and work colleagues and staying busy and engaged.

Focus on a project at home that you have been putting off, get caught up on some reading or go for a long walk.

Lastly, give yourself a mental break from the endless media coverage of the shutdown — especially all the “talking heads” on TV.

“You are just going to get upset listening to this,” Wise says. “Just take a break from the onslaught of pessimism you are hearing.”

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