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Worry and division are destroying America's psyche

Worry and division are destroying America's psyche
© Greg Nash

A galvanizing moment occurred this weekend, one around which we could all rally as Americans. A U.S. Special Operations team cornered ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi along with other ISIS fighters and Baghdadi followers. Baghdadi killed himself — and, tragically, three children — as U.S. forces closed in on him. But 11 other children were removed from his compound and not injured, according to President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE.

This event cuts right through all the doubts and leadership loathing that has afflicted our country recently. It is a moment to feel proud of our military, which in this case took out the brutal leader of a major global terrorist group which has threatened the world’s safety and caused the deaths of tens of thousands over the past several years. 

Unfortunately, rather than allowing this moment to stay with us and to fill us with pride and courage, I am afraid that too many Americans will move right back to a state of worry and distrust — and, in fact, several media outlets already are leading them in that direction. 

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Here’s what happens when we worry: Our bodies release stress hormones, which increases our heart rates and blood pressure, improves our visual acuity and places us “at the ready.” This “fight or flight” response to tragedy or perceived risk can be lifesaving, especially when we are in imminent danger.  

But what happens when the perceived threat isn’t real, or doesn’t materialize? Over time, these stress hormones continue to be pumped out and wear down our body’s natural defenses, and we become more prone to diseases, including depression, infections, heart problems and, possibly, cancer.

So it was after the 9/11 terror attacks, when we looked to our leaders to protect us and suddenly felt vulnerable not just to another attack but also to many perceived health threats, including anthrax, small pox and flu pandemic.

And so it is now, when many sense or feel a destabilization in our country due to the ongoing struggle over impeachment. We may look to our leaders for a sense of strength and protective guidance, only to find them deeply divided. This division is projected outward to the entire population — via the internet, cable news and other means — and it unsettles us, even at a time of economic prosperity and historically low unemployment. We attach ourselves voyeuristically to the news and whip ourselves into a manufactured froth. Social media rage and disparity is contagious.

As a physician, I am concerned about the impact of this public rage and divisiveness on our mental health as well as on our physical wellbeing. What should we do?

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For starters, we can listen to Buddha, who wisely said 2,500 years ago, “To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one's family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one's own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.”

This discipline and wisdom comes with replacing negative emotions with positive ones; with realizing that fear and foreboding course through the same emotional centers of the brain as do courage, laughter and love. Have you ever noticed that you can’t be angry and laugh at the same time?

My own prescription would be for more tolerance. Debate is fine, but a healthier mindset allows for accepting another’s point of view while acknowledging that much of our information comes to us through an opacified media lens or the deliberate agenda of social media. 

Now is not a time for being too sure of ourselves. It is a time for careful deliberation, rather than for open hostility. Our country is at relative peace, so let not our minds be at war.

Marc Siegel, M.D., is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is a Fox News medical correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @drmarcsiegel.