“In effect we’re sending stress signals to ourselves about which we can do nothing,” says Dr. Christopher McCarthy, Professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

The overwhelming uncertainty and tense political climate has become a point of stress for many Americans, with the US now setting a “national stress record” and with some even touting a new psychiatric diagnosis: Post Election Stress Disorder.

We speak with Dr. Christopher McCarthy, a UT Austin professor of educational psychology and leading authority on stress and coping in educational settings, on how his work translates to the current political climate.

“Educators are trying to understand how stress affects their daily lives in complex environments with various stakeholders,” Dr. McCarthy says, commenting on how this has a strong parallel to the information and stress overload surrounding the election and post-election news.

Managing a Stress Response

The stress response that humans experience is hardwired – anxiety, insomnia, and other physiological symptoms manifest when we are under stress. Dr. McCarthy says that our bodies don’t differentiate the type of threat so we need to understand how our body reacts and separate that from the psychological piece.

While it’s important to manage the immediate physiological response (with techniques such as breathing, journaling, exercise), in order to properly cope with stress, we need to build resources throughout our lives to “inoculate ourselves from stress.” That may include healthy, diverse social relationships that prevent stress but also allow us to better cope with stress when it arises. Many of the strategies we use to cope are not necessarily going to make things better. An example of that relevant to the political conversation is coping by getting more information.

Dr. McCarthy suggests that may not actually be beneficial to our own wellbeing because gathering information about which we have no influence can actually feed stress. Instead, he advises trying to be selective about the kind and quantity of information you receive, and what you can do to give yourself a sense of control.

“Reclaiming our own sense of security has to do with taking stock in what’s happening in our own world – relationships, jobs, interests – and keeping focus there,” Dr. McCarthy suggests, saying that a personal agenda can help maximize your own well-being.

The Value of Conversation Versus Debate

Next, we speak with Dr. Art Markman, professor of psychology at The University of Texas, author of Smart Thinking and co-host of the popular radio show Two Guys on Your Head. He’s an expert in the area of cognitive science and recently wrote a piece on the Texas Perspective titled, This Holiday Season, Listen and Converse. Don’t Debate.

Dr. Markman makes the (too obvious) point that in politics there is very little conversation—with the purpose of finding common ground—and yet a lot of debate—with the purpose of winning. His article addresses the difficulties many people have about discussing contentious topics with loved ones, friends or family members. He argues, however, that steering the conversation away from the topic isn’t necessarily the best approach.

“That wastes an opportunity. Having a conversation to understand what they’re really thinking about is important,” Dr. Markman says.

His advice for navigating those conversations?

  1. Be willing to engage rather than change someone’s mind. The purpose of having a conversation is to find some ways that you think similarly to someone else. Have a discussion with an open mind, rather than trying to get the other person to believe what you believe.
  1. Ask questions to try to understand their assumptions. Truly try to understand where they’re coming from rather than assuming from the beginning that there’s something wrong with them.
  1. Drop the judgment from the front end of the conversation. Markman suggests coming at a conversation with the lens of assuming the other person is just as smart and just as educated as you are. And that their set of experiences have led them to different conclusions.
  1. Share your assumptions and perspective. Do so in a way that is not in a mean spirit, but rather “Interesting point of view. I come at it from this perspective.” The goal is to find common ground, rather than differences.

Dr. Markman tells a personal story of having a conversation with someone with opposing views on the contentious issue of firearms. His story underscores the fact that if we’re going to make progress, we need to have conversations with people with whom we disagree.

“You may fundamentally disagree with someone. But that disagreement has more respect behind it if you at least understand where that person is coming from and the influences on their opinion,” concludes Dr. Markman.

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