The election campaign is stressful – be proactive to handle it
It may not appear to create an uptick in your level of stress, but the election season presents its own challenge to your well-being. Uncertainty and danger are key ingredients in the need to be on guard, and a cause for worry. And as you have probably noticed, there has been an exponential increase in the level of negativity in recent political campaigns. This is only magnified by tweeting and re-tweeting, and the millions of dollars poured into media buys to get these negative messages to the public.
We are always dealing with background stresses such as noise, crowds, traffic, and taxes. But whomever you are rooting for, your candidate has made it very clear the magnitude of the danger in the world today, as well as the catastrophe if the other candidate wins. Not quite the ten plagues, but – well, here is a quote from one of the choices: “Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation. The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life,” he said. “Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.” And if that doesn’t scare you, the other camp keeps warning of the danger of the finger of the other candidate hovering over the nuclear bomb.
This sense of danger and uncertainty undermines your basic feeling of safety and security. Your nervous system, at the center of your body’s protective mechanism, will always be more activated under these conditions. And thus, a political season in which there is a heightened sense of danger will keep your stress response activated way beyond its usefulness – and threaten your resilience and your health.
Under these circumstances the goal of maintaining resilience is ever more challenging. So the first key is keeping your eye on the prize: maintaining a balanced nervous system. One that doesn’t remain activated unnecessarily. You see, when the background messages are so negative, so derisive, so threatening, it’s important to take control of your stress response. Yes, you heard me right: although not taught anywhere in our schools and training, you do have the ability to exert some control over how your nervous system deals with life’s challenges. So we can use this time and experience to learn lessons that will serve you in all areas of your life. After all, there are many more concerns today that appear to be out of our control.
Our “all-purpose” stress response
We have one stress response, also referred to as our survival response, because it activates in order to protect and insure survival. Whether it’s the fear tactics of a presidential campaign or other areas of uncertainty and danger in your life, the mechanism of fight or flight that was adapted to our hunter gatherer ancestors’ environment will be engaged. Even in the best of times when dangers are real, the way our body mobilizes to handle the threat is out of date. We mobilize, but how many of your dangers can be effectively dealt with by either fighting them or running from them – none or few.
When a candidate presents information designed to scare, it can trigger the activation of your nervous system and you will go into this defensive posture. Much of the time it happens outside of your awareness. When this happens, your body uses extra energy to mobilize, tense muscles, become vigilant. In addition, since the energy of your body is channeled into protection, there is less energy to go around – to other important functions of the body, such as healing, detoxing and cell growth. During this season in which alarms are going off all the time, we must find a way to be awake and not allow this to leave our body defenseless while it’s putting all its energy into defense.
Retraining your stress response
There are always three parts to retraining your nervous system to harmonize with your environment: cognitive, emotional and physical. If we take this in reverse order, there is no substitute for practicing or training your nervous system to go into deeper states of calm. This is the counter to the almost constant activation of your nervous system caused by daily stresses – and accentuated by the election campaign mentioned above. Like any training, the more you do it the better you get at being able to turn on the recovery side – the relaxation response – of your nervous system. I have a free relaxation/visualizationexercise on my website – www.DrStephenSideroff.com – that you can download and use for this purpose. Daily relaxation training is a great investment of your time.
What is the role of the cognitive component? You can’t just do the relaxation exercise and expect to get good results unless your mind clears the way and allows you to do so. That means giving your lower, survival brain permission to turn down the volume to its fight or flight reaction to danger. In other words, some reassuring message needs to reach this part of your brain, letting it know that it’s safe to let down your guard and relax. It might go something like this: “Even though I’m hearing all these words of doom and danger, I know that much of this rhetoric is to get elected and not all accurate. Furthermore, my stress response is designed for immediate danger, and at this moment I’m safe and nothing can happen to me for the 15 minutes when I’m practicing relaxation techniques.”
In my book I refer to this as creating a “Zone of Safety” that makes it easier to let go and practice the right breathing and visualizations that will help train you to relax.
Emotions, particularly when you are sitting on unfinished business – emotional reactions that have not been fully dealt with – will also keep your body activated. This is because emotions don’t go away on their own, and a part of your mind will always be trying to address what’s unfinished. This is an important aspect of my sixth pillar of resilience: Emotional Balance and Mastery. In the short-term, you want to identify emotions still unresolved and find ways of reassuring yourself by making an internal commitment to addressing them. When you sit down to practice a relaxation exercise, remind yourself of this commitment and a particular time that you will return to address it. This again will help you let go to fully benefit from the relaxation exercise.
Resilience is about being proactive in dealing with daily stresses. This facilitates your ability to rely on yourself and to trust yourself. When you can do this, you feel a greater sense of control in your life. Approaching your day and this election season from this place will help your body and your brain function better and handle stress more effectively.