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How to navigate political stress in a time of polarization

There is no doubt political tensions are high in this country right now. Worrying about whether the country is going to go in a direction you like or not seems to be changing from something in the back of our minds to something that is at the forefront. People at all points on the political spectrum have been reporting feeling stressed out by the way “the other side” behaves, or just the fact that we can’t seem to get along with half of the people in the country. Yard signs have been stolen. Surveys report that they would hate for their children to marry someone from the opposing political party as their own, whereas that wasn’t such a big deal 40 years ago. What do you do in times like these when you have this sense of dread about where the country is headed?

It is easy to get caught up in the polarization of politics. If left unchecked, this spiral can overwhelm our lives and our sense of well-being. When we are worried, our focus tends to narrow towards fixing the thing that we perceive is wrong before we do anything else. But there are ways to change your perspective and relieve much of this stress. It starts with a reality check.

How we perceive politics is heavily influenced by how the news talks about it. Not that the news is wrong (if you get your news from multiple authoritative sources that corroborate the same facts, you can be more sure it reflects reality), but if you were to listen only to what the news focuses on, your view will likely be biased towards the extreme elements of each political party, and will be more likely to perceive everyone from the other political party as believing the same thing-- in other words, “they are all the same, and they’re all really bad”. After all, it makes for more compelling television or social media reading.

But when you actually look at surveys of political views, you will see that there are a lot of differences within each party of what people believe. In fact, it is a good bet that you don’t know what an individual person who voted for the other candidate thinks about every issue, and there is a good bet they don’t agree with the politician on every single issue.

Instead of seeing people who voted for the other guy as robots who don’t have any ideas of their own, we need to see them for who they are: real people.

We tend to think of people as villains when we attribute nefarious motives to them. For example, if we think people actively want to hold down minorities, or actively let immigrants in bypassing the legal channels because it helps them get more votes, we might get quite upset because that shows their values are far different than our own. But it turns out people do things because the course of action might best satisfy them while juggling several different motivations. The thing we think is driving their behavior might not even be in their mind at all. We tend to think that far more things are intentional than actually are. So we have a lot of trouble discerning people’s actual motives and intentions.

But if we actually got to know them, we would find out what their real goals and values are, not the ones we imagine them to have. Innovative programs like Braver Angels get people from different political persuasions in a room together and allow them to talk (they give them a positive set of rules for the conversation to make sure everyone listens and is understood). This program has been effective at getting people to feel far less hostile towards those who they don’t necessarily agree with politically. And it’s because they actually see other people as people instead of mindless villains.

But admittedly, you will not agree with everyone on everything. It’s an unfortunate fact of democracy, and being a human, that we have to find a way forward even when people disagree. So what do you do when, despite acknowledging that those you disagree with might have sincere motivations, you think their policies are driving our society into the ground?

Our mind has a tendency to go to worst case scenarios. Perhaps it is important to be aware of what the worst case scenario is, but the reality is that it almost never comes to pass. Whether we worry we’re going to make a fool of ourselves at some important public function (like public speaking), or we think the world is literally going to end due to climate change, our mind tends to see the potential for a bad outcome and panic. This doesn’t mean things will always be great, but they probably won’t be as bad as our imagined worst case scenario. Maybe you will flub your line in your toast at the wedding, or maybe there will be more wildfires and hurricanes in our future. But it is important to remember that it is not literally the end of the world. We will make it through. And if it is important to us to engage politically to find solutions to problems, we can commit to take action to be a part of those solutions. Find an organization that addresses your issue, and see if you can help. One person alone can’t solve any large-scale issue- we must work together to make a difference on many important problems.

Remember the future is rarely all-or-nothing. And the more we are a part of working with others on things we can do to change our immediate surroundings, the happier we will be. Just because something changes at the national level, doesn’t mean we don’t have control over things at the local level. Our mind does like to think in an all-or-nothing fashion, so it can be hard to overcome this sometimes. But trust me, there is more to life than one battle.

Research shows that we are happiest when we are part of a community that gives us a sense of camaraderie and purpose. In contrast, politics can divide us into camps, stripping this away. By forging connections with those who don’t always agree with us, and keeping our worries about the future in check, we can limit the amount of negative emotions we feel regarding politics. We will live another day. Try it-- talk to someone different and gain a new perspective. And talk to someone who feels the same and figure out how to make the world better. Just don’t sit around and watch the news or scroll your feed, getting bitter and panicked, without getting real human interaction.

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