How to Survive the Election

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(Brain/Gears: ©iStockphoto.com/paci77; Political icons: ©iStockphoto.com/artvea)
(Brain/Gears: ©iStockphoto.com/paci77; Political icons: ©iStockphoto.com/artvea)

It is a challenging time,”  affirmed Dr. Matthew Torres, executive director of the Johns Hopkins University Counseling Center.

This echoes the American Psychology Association’s recent finding: Of adults in the United States over the age of 18 surveyed, 52 percent reported the “2016 election is a very or somewhat significant source of stress.”


“Societally, we’ve become so strident and bifurcated,” said Torres. “A lot of people are  expressing fear about, ‘What happens if this person wins [the election]?’ Or fear about the country splitting.”

This splitting leads to a sense of helplessness, Torres feels, in the alienation and consternation that results from those who “don’t understand how these people in their family or neighborhood could possibly think differently than they do.”

As for a possible culprit, it was in January 2013 that President Barack Obama worried that what he called an “empathy deficit” may in fact be a larger political problem than the  financial deficit.

According to a 2010 breakdown by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, today’s college students are in fact 40 percent less empathetic than those of 20 or 30 years ago.

This determination was made by the institute after analyzing data culled from 14,000 students over a three-decade period  including the fact that said students — those taking on the reigns of society today — were less likely to agree with a statement such as, “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.”

Theoretically what can result by this lack of empathy is a kind of cognitive dissonance that evaporates one’s compunction about attacking or fearing those they no longer view as people, but as villains or monsters to be violently opposed or fled from in apoplectic panic.

According to a Jan. 3 article by the Esquire editorial staff  via a survey commenced in partnership with NBC News with a body of 3,000 respondents, as many as “half of all Americans are angrier than they were a year ago.”

“We the people are pissed,” the article reads. “The body politic is burning up. And the anger that courses through our headlines and news feeds — about injustice and inequality, about marginalization and disenfranchisement, about what they are doing to us — shows no signs of abating.”

One possible engine for this brand of “hyperbole” (as Torres qualified it) is social media. The resource’s propensity toward “emotional arousal” over “novel information” might be riling up the populace in a way that leads, as the APA found, 54 percent of those engaged to report experiencing election-related stress, versus the 45 percent of those who do not use social media and reporting on the same.

Although he noted that his 14-year-old daughter uses social media in a positive way, Torres worries that the digital tool also “allows for people to get great access to one side of the story of what their circle sees and so they’re not getting an even, balanced flow of news. They’re only getting what their friends are sending them.”

This is problematic, in the view of Pikesville resident Diane Bravmann, a licensed clinical social worker for more than 25 years, because “no matter what our political philosophy is, it’s important to be open and listen to all sides. When we listen to more sides, we are able to deal with the results and have more of a grasp of how we deal with how the election turns out.”

But what of the putative  necessity of a kind of “righteous anger” or needful fear? That idea promulgated by the familiar bumper sticker, “If you’re not afraid, you’re not paying attention”?

“Yes, people have a right to express anger,” Torres said, “but ideally, people will do this in a respectful, productive manner. I think it can be helpful to be vehement in your  position, but that doesn’t mean having to attack or be aggressive or insulting.”

“It’s OK to be angry, but it’s important to figure out what you can do with that anger that’s positive in order to not destroy yourself or others,” said Bravmann, who does believe “change has to happen, but good people are getting hurt and that’s not justifiable.”

There’s certainly a place for working toward making the world a better place and for being cautious of larger concerns than those of one’s own direct sphere of influence. But it’s as important to do one’s best to make healthy mental and physical choices.

Beyond the elementary idea of working toward protecting oneself against the onset of ennumerable physical ailments — many of which are significantly on the rise these days — such as heart disease, diabetes and the like, Bravmann (who focuses much of her work on the physical health of her clients) has found that “wellness and nutrition go together.”

“There’s no question it’s related,” Torres said. “You take care of one and you’re taking care of the other. Exercise has been shown to have a great  effect on mood and depression. If you’re eating healthily, you’ll be more active, your mood will be better, you’ll have more and better energy, more of a chance for a positive mindset.”

Bravmann suggested that those interested in meditation should attempt to attend one class in order to receive some guidance before trying to perform the act on one’s own.

It’s a matter too — rather like going to the gym for the first time — of flexing one’s meditation muscle, so to speak. Doing it for 30 seconds one day, 60 the next.

“It’s almost heretical, but one thing we recommed to students is to turn off media,” Torres said. “Take breaks from the exchange, step away from it, engage with people in real life where the focus isn’t on ‘big issues.’ If they’re going home for Thanksgiving, they might  decide not to talk about politics for some period of time. ‘Let’s focus on other things in our lives.’ It doesn’t always have to be front and center.”

Here, Torres is in concert with the APA, which also recommends that lessening media consumption may be a palliative to one’s stress this time  of year.

“Turn off the computer, turn off the phones, have an activity that doesn’t involve electronics or whatever, whether it’s walking, yoga, swimming … it doesn’t matter,” concurred Bravmann.

Torres was sure to add that along with spending time with friends and family, it’s important to remember that if real support is necessitated, people should let others know they are struggling.

“A lot of people are scared, upset and anxious right now because of the election,” he said. “So it’s a good time to receive support, including from mental health institutions.”

Between paranoia and naivete, between victimization and demonization there exists a place of practical, healthy equanimity where one can recall that we are all individual human beings governed by the same wants and needs, capable of the same empathy and sympathy, but also resilient and uniquely powerful in our own ways.

“Whatever happens on Nov. 8,” the APA asserts, “life will go on. … Avoid catastrophizing, and maintain a balanced perspective.”

“The lights aren’t going to go off,” Bravmann concluded. “This is all part of a flow of everyday life, even though it may seem — and can be — dramatic and traumatic. But we move on. We will move on. Obviously, we live in the present … with an eye toward the future.”

mklickstein@midatlanticmedia.com

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