A long (and bitterly fought) election season is nearing its climax, and all the extreme and aggressive talk dominating the political atmosphere may have you feeling a little apocalyptic.
It’s nearly impossible to avoid toxic political drama in today’s media landscape. We’re bombarded with it daily on Twitter, on news sites, in TV ads, and in print. Facebook and other social-media platforms have become gladiatorial arenas in which rival political “tribes” compete, and where we find ourselves embroiled in flame wars with friends and family.
According to Alan J. Lipman, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in the psychology of political behavior, the plethora of fear-based messages (typical during any campaign season, and particularly prominent during this cycle) can present a formidable challenge to mental health. Prolonged exposure to political fear mongering seriously harms people who suffer from anxiety disorders, he notes. But toxic political campaigns affect us all to some degree by reducing our sense of stability and security. Here’s how to manage.
Expert Source: Alan J. Lipman, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and founder of the Center for the Study of Violence in Washington, D.C.
Primal reactions. We’re vulnerable to rhetorical techniques used by politicians because, as Lipman puts it, they play to our weaknesses. “Their job is to find those areas of human experience that, when evoked, set up reactions so powerful and automatic that they’re almost impossible to resist: pride in country, care for children, fear of danger and of strangers, protecting family. They’re very effective triggers because they’re basic to human experience.”
Irrational fears. Much of today’s overheated political rhetoric plays on fears of falling victim to terrorism, even though it’s highly unlikely to happen to any of us. The Centre for Research on Globalization, a Montreal-based independent research organization, found that you are 29 times more likely to be struck by lightening than killed in a terrorist attack.
The “security effect” of strong opinions. Lipman notes that strong political opinions appeal to us because human beings fundamentally dislike uncertainty. Strong opinions (fact-based or not) and the politicians who offer them “relieve the basic anxiety we feel as humans to seek certitude — even if that feeling of certitude is based on information that is inaccurate or misguided,” he says. Political campaigns address our anxieties about uncertainty directly, he continues, as candidates typically offer “potential solutions to large problems — in particular, problems of personal and economic security.”
The appeal of the negative. We often love to hear about things political candidates have done wrong, and we frequently enter online political debates with guns blazing. The feeling that we’re fighting against something unjust or immoral builds our sense of righteousness, which can make us feel more secure in the short-term. But over time, this feeling of self-righteousness can become addictive: We crave the burst of adrenaline we get when anger triggers the sympathetic nervous system, which narrows our focus and temporarily boosts our feelings of confidence, strength, arousal, and a desire to express that indignation, anger, and aggression. Then we start to look for opportunities to fight, just for the rush. (For more on this anger cycle, see “Seeing Red: Anger Management.”)
Media validation of political heat. News outlets tend to “brand” political attacks as significant knowledge, Lipman suggests, even if the exchanges have little substance or validation. And when we hear angry rhetoric on the radio or see it reprinted in a major news outlet, the very fact that it appears in the mainstream media seems to endorse its importance.
Over-identification with politics. “Politics influences our lives, through laws, through Supreme Court decisions, and through the messages of an often conflict-driven and inflamed media,” Lipman says, but he notes that in the heat of an election season — when we’re barraged by the media’s focus on political competition — it can be easy to forget that our lives have other dimensions, too.
Too much screen time. Obsession with political news can be a subset of media addiction — the inability to switch off the endless stream of noise and just sit with our own emotions. Too much time observing negative rants can also trigger the “mirror neurons” in our brains, setting off an energy-sapping fight-or-flight reaction in the sympathetic nervous system. “Remember that the screen is just one dimension of a full and changing Earth, one that can become highly overrepresented in our lives,” Lipman says.
Social-media stress. This election cycle has been unprecedented for the role social media has played. Not only does this mean we’re saturated by campaign news more often, but it’s now possible that this news will dominate a majority of our daily communications. Many of us have found ourselves caught up in fiery online political disputes with strangers — and friends — over candidates and positions. These can be especially damaging, Lipman notes, because we don’t keep our anger in check the way we would during physical encounters. “There are none of the constraints — especially empathy — on our heated emotions that we would have in the presence of an actual person. So the emotion goes straight to the fingers and out into the world.”
Notice when you’re being played. “The most effective way to defuse the anxiety around political fear mongering is to contextualize it,” says Lipman. This involves putting some distance between yourself and any triggering statement. “When I speak to groups,” Lipman says, “I help them to remember that there are two important questions you can ask yourself: ‘What is this spokesperson/candidate/op-ed writer trying to make me feel?’ and ‘Why are they trying to make me feel that?’” Lipman points out that “the fact is, if you know what someone is trying to make you feel, that means you know how they are trying to direct your behavior. Then you can decide, with conscious control, whether you want to go in that direction.”
Do some digging. In the face of fear mongering and what he calls “the assertion of supposed facts that are not facts” by candidates and supporters, Lipman advocates objective research rather than withdrawal. Dig into reliable data at nonpartisan websites such as PolitiFact, which assesses the truth of politicians’ statements, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker site, www.factcheck.org, and www.votesmart.org (which keeps track of politicians’ ratings and positions, and even archives their speeches and public pronouncements) to get clarity about where the irrelevant hype stops and reality begins.
Switch off the screen. Don’t spend hours watching coverage or inflammatory commentary. Get the news you feel you need to stay up to date and informed, and then, in Lipman’s words, “go outside and live — explore and interact with the unmediated world that you live in.” Set limits, like 30 minutes of online political consumption a day. Use a timer if you need one. This will have the added benefit of making you more selective about what you spend time reading. Do you really want to devote an entire half hour to your uncle’s Facebook page?
Be a social-media peacekeeper. One way to diffuse political squabbling on Facebook or Twitter is to be thoughtful in your own communications, Lipman suggests. Remember that your online interlocutors are human beings, “not just representatives of political opinions.” Respond compassionately, even to disagreeable statements, granting respect to the poster. “See them as people on the other end of the screen, not merely postings,” Lipman says. “At the center, we seek to remind people that social-media communications are full, human communication that can be imbued with empathy, thought, connection, discovery, and insight that can infuse, stimulate, and inform face-to-face communication — if we allow ourselves to remember the diverse human beings that exist at the other end of our screens.” Ignore trolls, who are just seeking attention and stimulation through conflict. Ask genuine questions, not rhetorical ones. Seek to learn instead of just showing what you know.
Take care of yourself. One of the best ways to recover and heal from politically inspired fear and stress overdoses, says Lipman, is to spend time with friends and loved ones. “Stay connected to other human beings in a personal, face-to-face way,” he says, “so you’re not just receiving messages from the media, but messages that are accompanied by empathy, care, and support. Particularly in these times of increased conflict, and increased coverage of such conflict, it is critical to have the authenticity and grounding of genuine connection with others.”
This article has been updated.