I decided not to renew my XM Radio subscription this past fall, unaware of the unintended consequences that decision would have on my peace of mind.
Deprived of a huge variety of commercial-free stations, I found myself listening instead to a steady diet of National Public Radio.
Don’t get me wrong, I love NPR and rely on it for information that makes me a more informed citizen. But listening to nothing but news and commentary before, during, and after the U.S. presidential election was becoming toxic to my system.
I started to notice that I was always arriving wherever I was going feeling angry, reactive, and slightly crazed. My capacity to self-regulate in the face of news that was often distressing to me was rapidly diminishing.
It wasn’t uncommon to see me walk through the door of my destination with my shoulders up around my ears and froth around my mouth.
No matter what political party you subscribe to, I suspect you would agree that passions are running high in our country these days.
We are living in a time that Dr. Murray Bowen, creator of Bowen Family Systems Theory, would describe as “societal regression.” The level of cultural anxiety is extremely high, people are polarized, and our capacity to engage in meaningful conversation on difficult political issues has been eroded.
In addition, the news has been full of stories about politically-induced insomnia, people with trauma history being triggered, and Political Anxiety Disorder.
Then, a few weeks ago, someone said, “We need a course on how to survive in our present political climate.”
That got me thinking: How might we effectively navigate a time that is at best characterized by intensity and at worst by downright hostility, anger, and polarization?
Here are some thoughts on how not only to survive this anxious, stress-inducing time, but how to thrive in any period of high anxiety:
1. Reframe your efforts from “I’m just trying to get by” to “I’m taking on a research project.”
You are the subject of your own research. Put on your lab coat, and start noticing how you are responding or reacting to external triggers.
What triggers your anger or reactivity? At what point do you get “hot under the collar” when listening to the news or reading about politics on Facebook? What helps you to calm down and step back from the fray?
Become a student of your own reactivity, paying close attention to what is arising in you in this political climate. Try to ”get up on the balcony” and notice any overall patterns in how you are responding to external events.
2. Take a pulse.
Any research project involves having a starting point that you can compare results to as the research continues. On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your reactivity to political events today? A one might be: “Barely a blip on the reactivity scale when I listen to the news,” while a ten might be, “Eyes bulge, top of my head blows off, steam comes out of my ears, blood pressure sky-rockets at the mere thought of my least favorite politician.” You’re probably somewhere in the middle.
How would you assess where you are in your response to the political climate? Make a note of your answer.
3. Limit your consumption of news.
Some call this a “news diet.” Only listen to or read the news once or twice a day instead of every time you pull up your browser.
I try to take a “news fast” once a week, where I don’t listen to or read the news and don’t check my Facebook page for a whole 24 hours. Notice the difference in your ability to respond rather than react to politics after you’ve limited or abstained from news.
Remember, you are doing research on yourself.
If you’ve never tried meditation, this is a good time to start. Keep it simple: sit upright in a comfortable position with feet on the ground and hands in your lap. Slowly breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Count your breaths. When those chattering thoughts come pushing into your mind, gently notice them and return to a focus on your breath.
Try not to be critical when your mind is jumping about like a kangaroo—this is normal. The point is not to stop your thoughts, but to notice them and return to your breathing. Increase your meditation time by a few minutes every day. As you calm your nervous system down, you also build up muscles of focus that will help you resist getting carried away by your own reactivity to external triggers.
5. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Okay, so this was original with Jesus but a lot of others think it’s a good idea too. Try Metta (or loving-kindness) Meditation. This is a simple, yet strenuous, form of meditation which starts with showing compassion to yourself, then moves to those you love, to your acquaintances, to your community, to your enemies, to the whole world, to all beings.
You may need to build up your loving-kindness meditation muscles on self, beloveds, and your community before you are able to pray for your political adversaries in this way. Work your way up to imagining your least favorite politician and say to that person in your mind: “May you be safe. May you be peaceful. May you be well. May you live with ease.” Repeat.
Note the level of difficulty the first time you try this. What happens when you practice this daily? What changes do you notice?
6. Explore other spiritual practices.
Centering prayer is much like meditation in that you focus on a word or phrase to help you calm and center your mind. Lectio Divina is an ancient practice of a savory and slow reading that helps you deepen your relationship with resources like scripture, poetry, or other spiritual readings.
Integrating these practices will help promote self-awareness, help you to think more clearly, and deepen your spiritual resilience.
Humor is a function of the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. Accessing that humor by laughing is a good way to pull you out of that reactive, primitive part of your brain that gets easily riled up by anxiety and conflict.
The court jester used humor as a form of political critique of those in power. Late night TV comedians are doing the same thing now. Both are a form of wisdom that helps us to down-regulate and see things from another point of view.
Do something every day that helps you to have a good belly-laugh.
8. Take positive action.
Turn those feelings of helplessness around into positive action. Let your voice be heard by calling your state representatives in Washington and registering your opinion. Fivecalls.org or other organizations can provide the information you need to make those calls.
When you notice that you’re getting too worked up over politics, put on some music and dance. Even two minutes of moving around can help shift your energy from negative to positive.
10. Re-take your pulse.
Check back in with yourself after a few weeks of using the above strategies.
Where do you rate your political reactivity on a scale of 1 to 10?
Do you notice any difference in your level of reactivity to the political scene?
Are you better able to down-regulate when you feel the need to calm yourself?
Are you seeing any improvements in your ability to manage your reactivity?
Tending to your intellectual, spiritual and emotional responses to the political climate can help you think more clearly about (and even re-evaluate) your own stances. It can also help you to stay connected with those whose opinions differ from yours.
Moving from reactivity to response-ability helps us to make a meaningful contribution to creating a saner political environment. Working on self-development in this area isn’t easy, but it’s worth it in the long run.
Remember, practice makes better.
Author: Rev. Meg Hess
Editor: Callie Rushton