In recent weeks, I’ve found myself feeling increasingly frustrated – and even angry – with many aspects of this year’s presidential campaign, particularly as I’ve watched the news, speeches, debates and rallies, contemplated the implications of the poll numbers, and read dozens (or probably hundreds, I’ve lost count) of politically-charged Facebook and Twitter posts. I’ve also been feeling a bit powerless—questioning what I can really do to make a difference in this political race to help shape this country for a better future. In light of this (and sensing my own tensions building), I knew I needed to reach deep into my mindfulness toolbox and find a few tried-and-true strategies I could use to transform my negative feelings into more positive ones—and, so far, they’ve done the trick.
Whether you’re finding yourself watching a lot of CNN or FOX News and searching for your passport (so you can flee the country in January 2017 if the election doesn’t go your way!), or are feeling like a victim to the onslaught of politics in TV ads and your social media feed, this presidential campaign season is likely to bring many people at least a little angst. Here are three ways mindfulness can help bring you calm, clarity and feelings of empowerment during this election year:
- Being mindful of your own actions, thoughts, and feelings. In short, mindfulness is having an awareness of what you’re doing, what you’re thinking, and how you’re feeling, right as these things are happening. Take a pause and ask yourself: What emotion am I feeling right now? How much of my time and attention am I giving away to the presidential campaign? Have I been thinking—or possibly even ruminating—about things the candidates have said or did, even when I’m not watching or reading about them? Do I feel uncomfortable with the uncertainty about what might happen in this race and what I can do about it? And, finally, how does it make me feel when my mind is ruminating like this—am I anxious, worried, frustrated, or angry?
When you’re fully aware of what’s happening in a given moment, you can choose an action or response rather than reacting out of habit. You can allow yourself to fully feel the emotion and then elect to let it go and direct your attention to something else. Knowing how you’re using your time, your mental energy, and your emotional resources is the first step. If you find yourself feeling drained, then, rather than watching another speech or news clip, you might decide to read a book, go for a walk, or just give yourself permission to take a break from this one. When I’ve needed a little break, I’ve noticed I feel much calmer when I turn off the news and put on a Hallmark Channel movie instead!
- Being mindful of your breathing. Multiple studies have shown the benefits of taking time to meditate or “just breathe” when you’re feeling stressed or anxious (see this Washington Post interview with Harvard neuroscientist, Sara Lazar). If the campaign rhetoric you’re hearing or the prospect of a particular candidate in office gets your blood pressure rising, you can bring it back down—as well as your adrenaline and cortisol levels—by turning your attention to your breathing. Focusing on your breathing, and nothing else, for as little as 10-15 minutes can calm your body significantly, and help to settle a racing or ruminating mind. And when you notice a campaign-related thought creeping in on your peaceful moment (which is likely to happen!), all you need to do is gently acknowledge it and bring your attention back to your breathing. Even a few deep breaths can bring a greater sense of calm and clarity in the midst of this campaign madness.
- Mindfulness can turn fear into to empathy and creativity. Psychologist and social scientist, Dr. Daniel Goleman, has researched and written extensively on the effects of fear and stress on the brain’s cognitive abilities, and particularly on its ability to be empathetic and creative in these conditions (see this Harvard Business Review article). In brief, when the brain’s fear circuits are turned on, your ability to think rationally is diminished, and your attention becomes narrowly focused on the threat at hand. Your brain believes it can spare no time or resources for empathy or creativity when faced with a hostile situation from which it must urgently escape or eliminate. You might even find yourself somewhat paralyzed and less productive in your day. (This applies to workplace and family situations, too!)
In today’s polarized political climate, the hostile situation that could ignite a fear—or “fight-or-flight”—response in us could include
- hearing a threat or derogatory remark against a group to which we belong, a group we wish to protect, or the candidate we support;
- anticipation of how a major policy change could affect us, other people or groups of people;
- seeing a drop in our favorite candidate’s poll numbers; or
- hearing how our country is being perceived by others in the world in light of the race.
Or, we might just feel general anxiety from the ambiguity about what the outcomes of this campaign season will be.
Mindfulness—retaining your awareness on what’s happening right now, like your breathing—is an antidote to your brain’s deeply-wired fear response, lessening the likelihood that you’ll act on an impulse and react unskillfully to a political threat (“fight”) or withdraw from involvement in politics altogether (“flight”). Further, when you’re not excessively focused on a particular fear, you can begin to see another’s perspective—and the bigger picture in a situation—more clearly and become more creative about how to positively influence the current conditions. That’s how I decided to volunteer a few hours for one of the candidates’ campaigns and write this blog article!
We are truly empowered to take a stand for what we believe in when we are not victims of our brain’s default fear response, one that focuses intently on the threats it perceives (which could be amplified by excessive news-watching!) and reacts in ways that increase our own stress levels and those of others. Instead, when we keep our emotions and blood pressure in check, we can see things more clearly, better understand and try to empathize with the motivations of those who disagree with our views, and find innovative ways to positively affect those in our sphere of influence. I hope these mindfulness tools that I’ve found beneficial also help you have a healthier and more positive final month of the presidential campaign season. May we all mindfully vote our conscience!
Wendy Saunders is a Certified Instructor in Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT™), a program of Emory University that has been bringing mindfulness, meditation and compassion to doctors, nurses, business professionals, students, teachers, community groups, veterans and others for more than a decade. She also serves as Senior Manager of Leadership Development for YMCA of the USA, one of the largest non-profit organizations in the country—dedicated to youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility. Ms. Saunders currently resides in Los Angeles, California.