The science of stress in the era of Trump
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It is no secret that ideological tension is building in the United States. It is also not surprising that the latest antics and actions of President Trump are top headlines. Did you know conflicting opinions about the 45th president are making us a stressed out nation? Well, they are. 

According to a new Pew poll, almost seven in ten Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans say it is “stressful and frustrating” talking to someone with differing opinions of Trump. Overall, 59 percent of poll respondents get stressed talking about politics with people who don’t share their views on Trump, while 35 percent say it's interesting and/or informative. 

How come these conversations are so stressful?

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Neuroscience illuminates some answers. We are wired for greater affinity with similar political ideologies and opposition to those different from our own. When presented with difference, emotional structures in the brain associated with our identity are triggered. Our brains tell us we are under threat — whether we are or not. This threat response — referred to as “fight or flight” — releases a stress hormone called cortisol and activates the amygdala, the reactive part of our brains responsible for old memories. We hold our breath. We tense up. We heat up. We literally get into tunnel vision. Our hearing is impaired. We are uncomfortable, scared and agitated.

 

Additionally, these stress responses can reduce volume of the hippocampus, the part of our brain that generates new memories. It also impairs our anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which helps us self-regulate and course correct ineffective behaviors. With an active amygdala and compromised hippocampus and ACC, what happens? We repeat ineffective problem-solving strategies. We disconnect. In short, we are significantly limited and not operating at our best.

To boot, affirming political messages are like candy for the brain. Whereas hearing a conflicting opinion about Trump activates the amygdala, hearing similar perspectives releases dopamine. Our brain’s reward system is activated. We feel good — and we want more. The challenge is that every time we hear a message left unchecked, a neuropathway in our brain becomes more entrenched. The deeper the neuropathway perspective, the more difficult it is to think beyond our partisan view. 

Living in an echo chamber is not the solution. Compulsory for a healthy democracy is the ability to engage in healthy dialogue in which all can equally participate without fear of retaliation or coercion. This challenges us to suspend our agendas. We are called upon to really listen in order to understand differing views.

So, how do we effectively open up to preserve our personal and collective well-being? Try these five accessible, evidence-based strategies that optimize connection and reduce stress in today’s trying times.

Practice self-management. 

What is your natural response when presented with conflicting Trump talk? Do you fight, flee, freeze or fire up? Take note of your default response. Develop an “in the moment” strategy to practice self-control versus getting hijacked by your amygdala. 

When you notice yourself getting hotter or colder, implement a counter strategy to balance your nervous system and regain control. If you want to fight, set a timer for one minute. Count your breaths on the exhale. Try to focus only on the inhale and exhale of your breath. This breathing exercise helps equalize the nervous system and calm the mind. If you want to flee, assume a confident, open posture with shoulders back, chest open and soften your face. This “power pose” releases testosterone in the body, which increases confidence, authenticity, motivation and perseverance.

Ask open-ended questions — and just listen.

Get curious. Who is the person behind this differing view? What experiences shaped their life? Where do they get their information? What is important to them? Ask open-ended questions that preferably start with “what” and “how”. (Asking “why” can put people on the defense.) 

Just listen. 

Your mission is to understand. Actively listening builds empathy, the ability to understand the thoughts, feelings and experiences of another. When we are “in it” with the other person, “mirror neurons” are activated in our brains. It is like we are having the same experience. Building empathy reduces prejudice, burnout and stress from overwhelm.

Have a chat over coffee.

Invite someone you usually don’t hang out with to join you for coffee. Go beyond the usual pleasantries. Ask them what led them to where they are today? What motivates them? Who inspires them? What are they optimistic about? Afterward, share your experience so they have a chance to get to know you, too.

We build authentic connections by sharing stories and opening ourselves up to others. This can feel vulnerable, especially when meeting with someone you perceive to be different from yourself. By creating equal space for both to express and listen attentively, we accelerate building feelings of closeness. This releases oxytocin (a feel good, trust building hormone) in our brains. We become more open, are more adept at identifying areas of commonality and humanizing the other person. Even among partisans, sharing personal stories and focusing on areas other than political disagreement can reduce polarization. 

Log three We’s.

Think of someone who holds different Trump views from you. Next, set a timer for 60 seconds. Write down three ways this person is just like you. Here’s another example. Just like me: No. 1 we are both people, No. 2 we both want to be heard and accepted, and No. 3 we want our friends and family to be happy. When the timer sounds, review your list. What do you notice? How do you see this person now? The next time you see this person, what is one thing you will do to connect? Be sure to write it down.

One of the greatest threats to connecting with others is the perception of difference. Back in the 1970s, two social psychologists classified people like you as your “in-group” and those different as the “outgroup,” Out-groups can trigger the amygdala. We are all people who share more than 99 percent of the same DNA: an in-group. Focusing on our “common humanity” lead to individual and collective survival and thriving. Importantly, this creates a greater sense of connection with others and less isolation, which reduces stress.

Randomly do five good deeds.

Today, do five good acts of kindness. Help someone across the street. Lend a friend or family member a hand. Go out of your way for a colleague. Donate your extra change. Tip the barista. Large and small: share the good will. Random acts release oxytocin. Altruism builds pro-social behavior, making us feel connected to others and good about ourselves. This boosts happiness and can improve social interactions, too.

Practice these strategies early and often. Focus on trying to understand. Connect. We will all feel and be better for it.

Frieda K. Edgette is founder and principal of Novos Consulting, a coaching and change management consultancy operating at the intersection of politics and innovation. She instructs courses on stereotypes in politics at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management and resilient leadership at Stanford Continuing Studies. 


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.