(This article was written as part of The OpEd Project.)
The capacity to deal with uncertainty could be the difference between surviving and thriving in 2017. In just over two short months, the country has experienced polarization, unrest and activism unmatched in recent history. The effects are already evident: A staggering 57 percent of people polled by the American Psychological Association in January said the current political climate is causing them significant stress. Indeed, mental health professionals have coined the terms “election stress disorder” and “headline stress disorder” to describe the plight of many clients.
Long-Term Effects of Stress
What’s most worrisome is that chronic stress over a long period of time has been shown to damage relationships, life satisfaction and health. In fact, during more than a decade of research, University of California, San Francisco psychiatry professor Elissa Epel has shown that chronic stress accelerates aging. She argues that along with diet and exercise, learning to manage stress can help us lead longer, healthier lives.
When the fear center of our brain is activated, it suppresses the part most able to fully attend to what is in front of us and to connect with others.
With that in mind, here are three social and emotional health strategies to help you manage uncertainty in 2017:
3 Tips for Handling Post-Election Stress
1. Nurture relationships. A year ago, you might have found your friend or relative’s political views benign, maybe even charming. In today’s climate, however, many relationships are strained in new ways. But we need those relationships, even the challenging ones, because our brains are social organs.
Lou Cozolino, professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, contends that the brain requires a matrix of social relationships to survive. Without those relationships, brains literally shrink.
Fortunately, Cozolino also has found that strong relationships stimulate positive emotions. The National Institutes of Health has discovered that social relationships are as predictive of mortality as smoking and alcohol use — and are more predictive than other risk factors, such as obesity.
So, the problem isn’t just that the overwhelming uncertainty and exacerbated differences of opinion have us all in a tizzy right now. What’s worse is that stress, anxiety and depression act as attention thieves. When the fear center of our brain is activated, it suppresses the part of our brain most able to fully attend to what is in front of us and to connect with others.
So, ironically, just when we need those relationships most, stress detracts from the care and nurturing we want to give our loved ones. At times, we might withdraw so much it’s as if we’re sleepwalking through our lives, missing moment after moment. To buffer the stress that comes with these uncertain times, we need a few key relationships in our lives that allow us to speak truth, express confusion, laugh and exhale — relationships that remind us who we are and what ultimately matters.
2. Pay attention to narrative. As therapists, one of the most important concepts we work with is that there’s a difference between what happens to you and the story you tell yourself about it. In fact, the latter — the narrative you develop about your circumstances — can be much more important than the former.
Leadership coach David Emerald developed a process for challenging problematic narratives that he calls “the empowerment dynamic (TED).”
In his model, if my narrative about the political situation, for example, focuses on fear, I will experience the situation as debilitating and overwhelming. But if my narrative focuses on courage, I’ll be lit up with passion and hope. That passion fuels my ability to take my next steps and participate in a solution.
Sadly, today it’s more difficult than ever to make sense of public events in a way we find empowering. For one thing, we no longer all read the same newspaper and watch the same TV stations. Today, I can read news all day long and never come across the information my next-door neighbor is reading. Starting out with different facts means we have less opportunity to compare conclusions and perhaps revise our own interpretations and narratives.
Pushing past these challenges and exploring a new narrative can help move forward and resist paralysis.
3. Zoom out. The children’s book Zoom, by Istvan Banyai, begins with a splotch of color. Turning the page, the picture zooms out, and you see that splotch is actually the comb of a rooster. On the next page, you see that the rooster is only a small detail in a picture of children gazing out a cottage window, and so on.
On every page, you think you know what you’re seeing until you turn the page and gain an entirely new understanding. In this whimsical way, the book shows the importance of widening our lens when we feel stuck or overwhelmed.
Perspective-taking helps reduce stress because it counteracts our very human tendency to over-focus on specific problems. We can’t avoid this negativity bias: it’s hardwired, according to psychologist Rick Hanson.
He argues that, to our ancestors, hyper-focusing on danger offered a survival advantage. After all, if they misread danger signs, they might be eaten by a tiger. (Eek! Not a mistake you make twice.)
Evolution has protected us by developing this danger sensitivity, but this comes with an obvious dark side. As Hanson puts it, our brains are “Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good.”
Seeing with Fresh Eyes
Fortunately, we’re not doomed by our biology. We can see a situation with fresh eyes. Three specific questions, taught by the Stagen Leadership Academy in Dallas, are designed to help you do that. (I find them so helpful, I review them daily, as a grounding practice.)
Ask yourself: 1) What is really happening? 2) What’s most important and most needed? and 3) What is the most helpful action I can take?
It’s already clear that 2017 will require from us a tremendous capacity for managing uncertainty. As we find ourselves in uncharted territory, engaging in these three disciplines — nurturing relationships, paying attention to our narratives and zooming out — can ensure we bring our most productive, hopeful selves to the table.
In the end, we will be defined not by the events around us, but, rather, by our responses to them and to each other.
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