In the current political climate, many people are stressed out and may even be dreading Thanksgiving with relatives or friends who do not agree with their political views. Even a simple comment can go awry! It is like we are all stepping on eggshells and no conversation is safe.
In this week's blog and podcast, I am going to give you several useful tips I use to navigate tricky subjects, and manage political stress and anxiety on a day-to-day basis:
1. Imagine a shield around your mind:
Every time you find yourself having a stressful conversation, visualize a shield around your thoughts. Imagine the words bouncing off your mind: you are not going to absorb the weighted emotions that are threatening you. You are protected and safe. Tell yourself that you are calm and at peace.
How does this process help? The way you use your conscious and nonconscious mind (that is your imagination) shifts the way the brain processes information. So, as you visualize this shield, your thinking changes, which, in turn, changes your brain waves and engages different neural pathways. This is called neuroplasticity, and mind-management is directed neuroplasticity. If you don’t manage you mind and how you react to others, you can wire damaged, toxic thoughts into your mind that not only affect how you treat people, but how you feel, mentally and physically.
2. Be curious:
Ask questions! Think about what the other person is trying to say. Listen. As I often used to say to my patients, a curious mindset is crucial to navigating life and different relationships, as it encourages you to listen to different views, get as much information as possible by engaging with multiple news outlets and so on, and questioning your own assumptions.
If you catch yourself saying that “so-and-so” doesn’t know what he is talking about, stop, remind yourself that everyone sees the world differently because no two minds are alike, and listen to what that person has to say before responding impulsively. You can step outside of yourself using your frontal lobe and truly hear what someone says as an observer rather than as someone who thinks “so-and-so” is an idiot.
So, train yourself train yourself to really tune into what that person is saying and not just hear “trigger” words and react. For example, every time you listen to someone who has a different opinion, try see the argument from their perspective, as your teacher made you do in school when you encountered different ideas. The ability to think critically and understand different viewpoints is, after all, a sign of intelligence, not compromise.
3. Don’t let your feelings influence you:
Acknowledge your feelings, but do not let them control you. In many cases, you will react because of the flight or fight response. Work through these reactions and question them. Think about your emotional triggers, so that you can avoid reacting impulsively in the future by controlling these triggers.
Remember, just because we feel something doesn’t mean it’s correct, especially if it gets in the way of us focusing on the person speaking and trying to understand where they are coming from and their worldview!
4. Focus on solutions, not problems:
Rather than just ruminating on the issues that are causing you distress and becoming bitter about what is being said, develop a solutions mindset. Think of ways to you can improve the situation you are in and reduce tension. Find ways you can learn from what is being discussed, even if you end up agreeing to disagree with the person in question.
5. Don’t let politics control your schedule:
Limit the amount of time you spend discussing political issues, so you don’t end up ruminating on things that upset you. Choose a time and space where you focus on politics, so it doesn’t pervade the day.
6. Listen to what is being said, not who is saying it:
Focus your attention on what exactly is being said—focus on the details of the speech, so you don’t demonize the person who is speaking and make it personal. Listening to a politician’s voice, or seeing a politician’s face, can have a strong emotional component because it can get stuck in your head, overriding your ability to examine what is being said in a rational and objective way.
As they speak, imagine the politicians as tiny people, smaller than ants, like in the movie Honey I Shrunk the Kids. This will bring humor into the situation, which dramatically reduces anxiety and can help you listen to what they are saying in a more detached way.
7. Read and listen with a compassionate mindset:
Compassion defuses the inflammatory reactions in the body that occur when we get worked up and anxious about what someone is saying, which will protect your own brain and body while helping you understand and navigate different political perspectives. Indeed, compassion can really help you recognize that most politicians are in high states of anger, anxiety and stress themselves, and often don’t say things in the best way or make the best decisions. They are human, after all!
8. Examine your own worldview:
In many cases, people get upset when they feel that their worldview threatened, which happens so often in politics! It is easy to feel that your way of life is being challenged and that people disapprove of your belief system, and that this is a direct attack on you as a person, but you need to remember that everyone sees the world differently.
So, take the time to objectively examine what you believe, and compare it to how other people see the world. Think deeply about what it means to have a “worldview” or “point of view”, and recognize that it normal for people to have different perspectives. You may not agree with these perspectives, but just understanding that they exist can make you more compassionate and considerate.
Of course, today it is far too easy to put someone in a certain group or label them as an enemy just because you disagree with them. Rather than falling in this trap, always remind yourself that no two minds are alike. No two brains are wired in the same way, just as no two people are exactly the same! We cannot escape our differences, so we need to learn to live with them—especially when it comes to politics.