How to Reduce Your Stress During Election Season

Election years are always challenging on social media. We feel bombarded with information we didn’t ask to receive and often times it can ignite anger, frustration, sadness or other emotions.
One of the spokes on the Wheel of Life is the mental spoke, and I think I would be doing my readers a disservice if I didn’t start a conversation about how we will make it through the rest of 2020. The mental strain of the pandemic, the racial and social justice movement, and the election are taking a toll on our collective mental and physical health.
Recently I was listening to an interview with a neuroscientist who was talking about this very issue in our nation. Several of the points he made were so powerful that I couldn’t resist sharing them with you. Here are just a handful of points he shared*:

  • The brain takes up a small percentage of the body’s weight and mass, but it disproportionately consumes energy. Just to get through a standard day with no challenges, the brain consumes 20% of our calories. On a particularly mentally straining day, it can consume as much as 40% of our energy.

  • The brain gravitates towards patterns. It cannot equally process all the information coming at it in every moment, so we survive by compartmentalizing. This causes us to rely on labels, stereotypes and assumptions to categorize information. Unfortunately, it will lead to us believing perceptions as facts.

  • When we come across information that we love, something that reiterates our belief system, the brain releases “happy hormones” like serotonin or dopamine. They give us a quick win and that feeling will last in the body for 5-10 minutes

  • When we come across information that angers us and makes us feel powerless to do anything about it, the brain releases cortisol. This is our “fight or flight” taking over. Cortisol is the stress hormone, and is released into our blood stream and will linger there for 3-4 hours.

  • The cortisol becomes particularly concerning when we consider how much time is spent on social media and the evening news. It’s possible to continuously receive “stressful” information over and over again throughout the day before the body has even stabilized from the last “hit.”

  • There are two main physical concerns with this ongoing release of cortisol in the body. First, it can lead to cardio vascular issues. (Think people who have a stress-induced heart attack). Second, over a prolonged period of time this will degrade the synaptic connections in the brain. The doctor then humorously said, “so basically it makes you physically unhealthy and stupid at the same time.”

So what do we do with this information? He had two recommendations:

  • Maintain a state of curiosity. The brain’s tendency to create patterns and labels creates problems not only in politics but in our ability to have healthy communities. By choosing to respond to a new piece of information with a desire to understand someone else’s perspective, we can grow.

  • You need to make sure you are giving your body a healthy break. Plan large chunks of time in your day where you are not exposed to the news or social media. One simple word can be enough to trigger your brain to release cortisol if you have a strong emotional reaction when you hear that word or phrase.

By sharing this information with you, please do not think I have mastered it. My personal opinion is that the good of social media outweighs the bad, but it still requires a unique discipline to navigate through it. I also personally value staying informed about local, state and national politics so I cannot unplug entirely from information.

I am sharing this with you because I believe it’s important that we try. As Tom Ziglar said, and I often requote, “the fastest way to success is to replace bad habits with good habits.”

I am fully aware that I need more boundaries around my intake of information, and I am working on them. The two positive changes that I made years ago that helped me tremendously were:

  • I do not watch any news stations. I consume all my information through written word. The articles tend to have less “drama” added to them (outside of the headlines) because they are competing for clicks, verses news stations that need to keep viewers glued to the screen. In addition, TV media need to keep their stories short and sweet. Online articles can fill the text with more information and hyperlinks to more resources. This helps me get a clearer picture of the full story than TV.

  • I unfollow people on social media who trigger me into stress. I enjoy having connections to people with a variety of political opinions, but there are certain things that cause me stress. I didn’t realize it was a cortisol release, but I did recognize I didn’t like the way it made me feel and the feeling lingered. Personally, my triggers are memes that haven’t been fact checked, screaming at “the other side” like they’re stupid, and posting daily (or more often) about your viewpoint. These things cause me to get all worked up, so anyone who triggers me gets unfollowed because social media for me is something I do for fun, not to induce stress.

There has never been a more important time to evaluate our habits around receiving information. For our physical and mental health, we have no choice but to address our habits and boundaries around receiving information during this very volatile time in our society.

*I paraphrased his information for the purpose of this blog post. The interview I was referring to can be found on the Independent Voter Podcast from July 15 titled Paul Meshanko and the Neuroscience Behind Political Behavior

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