The Cure For Election-Related Stress? Believe Your Political Adversaries Can Change

9:31 minutes

It’s no exaggeration to say that the U.S. has just experienced the most polarizing, contentious, and bitterly fought presidential election in recent memory. It’s taken a toll on the minds of many: A survey by the American Psychological Association last month showed that the 2016 presidential election was a source of significant stress for more than half of all Americans.

Research has shown that stress can have long-lasting effects on the brain; it can create changes in gene expression and impair immune function. But psychologist Kelly McGonigal says the biological response of stress is triggered by our outlook—the idea that someone or something “out there” is a threat to us. The solution is to believe our political adversaries can change. The belief in the possibility of change, McGonigal says, can eliminate stress by removing the thing we judge as harmful. Furthermore, it also makes people more likely to support compromise, to speak up for things they believe in, and feel more hopeful about the political process.  

Segment Guests

Kelly McGonigal

Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist and researcher at the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism at Stanford University in Stanford, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

It’s no exaggeration to say this has been the most polarizing, contentious, and bitterly fought election in recent memory. It’s turned everyone watching into a tightly wound coil waiting to snap. Stressed, that’s how people have described feeling recently. And even now that the election is over, that stress is probably lingering either because you supported a different candidate or because you’re reeling from such a hard fought battle. And you have– maybe it’s political PTSD. So how do we recover from this?

My next guest is a stress expert who says the best way to find relief is to use stress as a weapon against itself. Change the stress that leaves you feeling powerless into stress that makes you powerful. Joining me to discuss exactly how to do this is Kelly McGonigle, a psychologist and researcher at the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism. Welcome to Science Friday.

KELLY MCGONIGAL: Hi, thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Now, there’s something different about the stress people have been feeling as a result of this election. It feels more than just your average, every day stress. Am I right about that?

KELLY MCGONIGAL: Yes, this is definitely different than everyday stress. What I’ve heard is that Americans across the political spectrum are reporting huge levels of social mistrust. They feel like the country has changed. They don’t know who these people are anymore. They don’t feel safe or respected or valued in their own community. And this is not the kind of stress that you can relieve with a bubble bath or a glass of wine.

IRA FLATOW: And if you’re feeling stressed and you want to talk about it– as good psychologists always say– our number, 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us, @SciFri. 844-724-8255.

Have there been studies done on the effects of this, what you’re saying, this social mistrust?

KELLY MCGONIGAL: Yes, yeah, one 2015 study actually asked adults in 87 different countries if they agreed with the statement that most people can be trusted. And they found that universally, social mistrust, mistrust, it was linked to poor health and distress, whereas believing that people could be trusted was linked to well-being. And in fact, even some researchers who study genetics have found that social mistrust can change gene expression. That alters the immune system. It can change your brain function in a way that increases your risk of everything we don’t want from depression to heart disease.

IRA FLATOW: So that’s what they say. We’ve heard that. If you stay stressed, you get sick.

KELLY MCGONIGAL: And not just any kind of stress though. The social mistrust is particularly toxic. It’s very different than, say, the stress of ordinary hassles.

IRA FLATOW: So the stress I’m experiencing as a result of this election can really be changing me at a cellular level.

KELLY MCGONIGAL: Yes, yeah, in fact, some researchers call it a molecular memory for particularly stressful experiences.

IRA FLATOW: So OK, let’s get to the advice of how do I get rid of it.

KELLY MCGONIGAL: Well, OK, so first of all, you’re probably not going to get rid of the stress. And that’s OK because we know that stress is a signal that something that we care about is at stake. And some kinds of stress responses can lead to positive action. It can inspire us to change, to grow, to connect with others. We want that kind of stress.

What’s really toxic about this election stress is the despair and the social disconnection that social mistrust leads to. It leads to a particular kind of stress response called a threat response that makes us want to escape, like, say, move to Canada, or to be really destructive, to burn things down, to heap more suffering on top of suffering. And I found that one way to change this kind of threat response into a more productive stress response is to actually believe that whoever you feel threatened by, whoever you view as the threat, believe that they can change and the situation can change.

IRA FLATOW: So you have to change the threat response into some other kind of other response that you can channel better?

KELLY MCGONIGAL: Yeah, so we know that you can have a challenge response, which is a stress response that actually gives you energy and courage. It creates the biology of courage so that you can act. You can have a tend and befriend stress response. That makes you feel, actually, more empathy for others and a desire to come together to do something positive. And those are stress responses. Not all stress is bad. But again, in order to get to that kind of stress response, we need to transform this profound social mistrust, the sense that others are the enemy and there’s nothing we can do about it.

IRA FLATOW: And it’s a hard pill to swallow for a lot of people, thinking that they can change the way they believe. Is there evidence showing that it will actually improve things if you change your beliefs?

KELLY MCGONIGAL: This is a mindset that most people already have. And they just need to remind themselves of it. So for example, one study at Stanford, they found that when you remind people that people can change– people in general can change– that they were then more likely to speak up against bias, against racism or sexism. And they were also more open to interacting with people who expressed that bias. They were more willing to collaborate. And they were less likely to want to avoid those people or to try to humiliate them.

There been other experiments like this too, one that was conducted at the IDC in Israel that found that when you remind people that conflicts can change, it increased hope. And it increased people’s willingness to actually collaborate and compromise to try to reach a more positive outcome with their political adversary.

Again, this is simple mindset reset. I mean, most of us, we want to believe that people can change. And this election is making us feel like maybe that’s not true. And we need to double down on that positive hope so that we have the energy and the courage we need to move forward and stay engaged.

IRA FLATOW: Let me see if I can get a phone call or two in here. Let’s go to Rudy in Lemont, Illinois. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

RUDY: How you doing? Quick question. My father was an illegal immigrant. Eventually became a citizen. And I was watching the news in Spanish yesterday. They had a news story about how politics is affecting young children. They’re terrified that their parents are going to be deported. How can you help children who are living in real fear? I’ll take my answer after I hang up.

IRA FLATOW: OK, thank you. Yeah, kids.

KELLY MCGONIGAL: Yeah, I have heard this too where I live, here in the San Francisco Bay Area. This is reality. And it’s really important for us to have the courage to think about ways to make our children and make everyone in our community feel safe and valued and respected.

And I think there are two things to think about. One is to try to be that safe place for children so that they know that, in their own home or in their own schools, they are valued and accepted and safe. And we can do that through love and kindness and trying to encourage them without dismissing the reality of current politics. But the other thing that I think people forget about is how important it is for kids to feel like they have something to do and to contribute. And whether that is writing a letter, or joining in some sort of positive action in their own community, it’s really important for them not just to feel protected, but to feel like they have something to offer others.

And this is true. This is not just for kids. This is for all of us. One of the biggest antidotes to moral distress and despair is moral elevation. And one way that we feel that is by ourselves doing something good in our own communities and witnessing that good in others. And I would say that, in addition to simply trying to console and encourage people who feel scared, who may feel legitimately scared, it’s important to look for ways to uplift and not just sooth.

IRA FLATOW: Would that be like volunteering, going out and doing something that you know would help people?

KELLY MCGONIGAL: Yeah, and it can be related to politics or not. I mean, basically, moral elevation is an anti-toxin for all of this other stress that we’re dealing with. And so if you don’t know what to do about politics, do something good for a neighbor. Do something good for a friend. Do something good for a stranger.

And because it changes our physiology– it’s basically the opposite of a threat response– it’s good for us, our immune systems, our cardiovascular systems. It creates hope and a sense of common humanity that when you do something like that, again, it puts you in that kind of state and state of mind where the type of stress response you have in response to politics is more likely to be constructive and less likely to be that overwhelming despair that we really are trying to transform.

IRA FLATOW: How about spending more time with your family or people who feel like you are stressed out the same way? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

KELLY MCGONIGAL: Yeah, I mean, one thing that really distinguishes this election stress from ordinary, everyday stress is that it’s bigger than self. And any tendency to, I think, retreat or to isolate yourself is going to make things worse. And so finding ways to be with communities that you care about– friends, family, other communities– it’s really important. And it’s really important to strengthen that sense that I’m not alone and also that sense that I have something to offer.

And you mentioned volunteering. That’s one way to do it. But knowing what you have to offer your friends and family, that also is a powerful antidote.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because a lot of people want to go nesting. And they want to just hide.

KELLY MCGONIGAL: And of course, it makes sense. It’s so important to have some compassion for yourself. There are a lot of people who are devastated right now. And eventually, it’s going to be important to come out of the cocoon and reengage with the world.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Thank you very much for taking the time to be with us and offering some good advice for us.

KELLY MCGONIGAL: Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Kelly McGonigle, a psychologist and researcher at the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism.

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