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Wellness Corner - February 2017 - Politics and Psychological Distress

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Politics and Psychological Distress

By Dr. Gary Pace

 As a result of the election coverage and transition to the incoming President Trump, increased stress levels and worsening relations between different groups in our communities have become the norm.  Regardless of political persuasion, most of us lament this development and the effects on our emotional health, which can show up in our relationships and physical well-being.

“We’re seeing that it doesn’t matter whether you’re registered as a Democrat or Republican — U.S. adults say they are experiencing significant stress from the current election,” said Dr. Lynn Bufka of the American Psychological Association.  Headaches caused by election-related worry are on the rise, as are anger, harrassment, and hate-related crimes.  While this election has been particularly contentious, and many people in Sonoma County are disappointed with the results, I am concerned that there is a more fundamental societal rift that is manifesting in these ways.

What is Going on Here?

While conflict in politics has been a central part of our democratic system, the climate of polarization has hit new levels.   The breakdown of the conventional new outlets, hyperactivity of social media, insulation of differing groups through their own news sources, and the amplification of polarities by politicians is leading to significant schisms within this country. 

Politicians, media outlets, and organizations that fund-raise have increasingly come to rely on negative ads, “fake news” targeting the opposition, trolls that harass people with opposing opinions, and other such tactics.  These are designed to increase dissatisfaction with the other side and breed alienation from the system.  This deflection tactic aims to shift attention away from the seemingly intractable problems in our society by blaming the opposition, and hopefully getting the vote, or the donation, from the viewer.  It also leads people to rely on more primitive psychological structures—rigid thinking, extreme positions, less ability to see both sides of an issue.

The classic propaganda technique of “scapegoating” has been utilized by both sides, although the Republicans seem to be particularly enamored with the tactic.  Negative focus on LGBT people, people with disabilities, immigrants, minorities, and women was clearly in evidence during the election.  The flip side is the stereotypical characterization of Trump supporters by the Democrats as described by Anthony Bourdoin, a chef and media personality:  

“The utter contempt with which privileged Eastern liberals such as myself discuss red-state, gun-country, working-class America as ridiculous and morons and rubes is largely responsible for the upswell of rage and contempt and desire to pull down the temple that we’re seeing now… When we deny them their basic humanity and legitimacy of their views, however different they may be than ours, when we mock them at every turn, and treat them with contempt, we do no one any good.”

Action Steps:

As I see some of the modern societies that have fragmented into sectarian violence, I wonder, “Could that happen here?”  It seems far-fetched, but we are now moving along a continuum, and our political and religious leaders seem to be encouraging increased polarization as a matter of course.  Let’s do what we can to recognize the techniques being used to manipulate us into more rigid mindsets, those that prevent empathy or appreciation of the point of view of “the other,” and which ultimately lead to increased stress, victimization, discouragement, and helplessness.  

So, what can we do?

  • Watch the news and use social media sparingly.  Get the  needed information and then get involved in other activities.  Beware of “echo chambers” where we hear the same information and viewpoint over and over, and then believe it to be the truth.
  • Mindfulness techniques can be helpful when negative thoughts keep creeping into our awareness.
  • Get clear on what we believe in, what we are for,  not always focusing on what we oppose.
  • Get inspiration from some leaders: Thich Nhat Hahn during Viet Nam, Martin Luther King and Gandhi during conflict-filled eras where they worked for change while also keeping clear about the humanity of their opponents.
  • Learned helplessness is a killer.  The current situation is not an invitation to withdraw—political engagement is particularly important now.  The trick is in finding effective avenues that are in alignment with our views.