Soothe Your Election Dread With This Simple Exercise
Turn your evolutionary stress response into action
To say 2020 has been a stressful year is almost insultingly obvious. As a therapist, I’ve watched my clients navigate job loss, social isolation, and concerns for the safety of their loved ones. With limited access to the places and activities we typically would turn to in order to cope, anxieties are running high and often have nowhere to go. And now, there’s the election.
One stress-management exercise I offer to my clients is to “zoom out” and then “zoom in” to gain a new perspective on stressors and chart a plan of action for getting unstuck. To understand how this process works, it helps to first understand how stress occurs in the body.
How stress works physiologically
Our bodies evolved to respond to stress as a contained event, with a beginning (you see a lion crouching in the grass about to pounce on you); middle (you either fight that lion, run like hell, or drop and play dead: fight, flight, or freeze); and end (you kill the lion, or run to the safety of your village to celebrate). The moment of danger passes, and the physiological process of the stress cycle is resolved.
Chronic stress — like living through a pandemic or, say, awaiting the results of an election that could unfold over several weeks and months — is what happens when our evolutionary survival reflex is triggered by a perceived threat that isn’t immediately resolved. It’s as if the lion showed up, ready to pounce, and then… nothing happened. For weeks. Months.
When we’re in the midst of an anxiety or stress spiral, we can feel so overwhelmed by an overarching sense of doom that we don’t know where to begin to address it. We get stuck in a freeze response, feeling numb or distracted. While this instinct is protective when we’re facing a lion we can’t fight or escape from, an uninterrupted freeze response in modern life can be maladaptive. Our actions need to adapt to modern-day experiences of ongoing stress. And the first step is rethinking how we view stress itself.
Zoom out, then in
Stress is unpleasant, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be useful as information. After all, we evolved to be able to interact with stress as precisely that: as information alerting us to danger, in order to get us to act in the direction of self-preservation and survival. And that’s where “zooming out” comes in, as a mindfulness technique to get a better handle on the things that are stressing you out.
Picture yourself floating above the earth, scanning your anxieties much the way you might do a body scan in a yoga class. What do you notice? What thoughts race through your mind, and what sensations do you feel in your body? Where do you feel them? Do you notice the sensations ebb and flow as you sit with them? Are they more intense when you think of one particular issue? Which one?
As you begin to understand the scope of your anxieties, take a moment to “zoom in” on the details. Ask yourself, which of your anxieties is the loudest, or causes the most pain? Taking stock of your anxieties can point you in the direction of the one or two issues that would feel most meaningful for you to confront.
Chances are that your stressors are at least somewhat grounded in the outside world. Maybe they have to do with the future of reproductive rights or fallout from whatever happens in the election or with relationships with family members you disagree with or Covid cases in your community. How can you use what you learned about your anxiety, when you zoomed out, to direct you to community care, mutual aid, and relationship-building opportunities in a way that emphasizes agency, hope, and resilience?
One of the biggest misperceptions about mental health and wellness is that self-care and healing are things we can do alone. In truth, stress rarely exists in a vacuum. Collective stressors affect everyone personally. Thus, collective care can be an effective means of self-care.
A suggestion for what to focus on
There’s a stress response that speaks specifically to this dynamic, called “tend and befriend.” It’s when people (notably, usually those socialized feminine) turn toward community nurturing and care in order to soothe and resolve their individual stress response. Studies have shown that altruism and other pro-social behaviors are correlated with positive health and mental health outcomes such as decreased blood pressure, increased longevity, and increased happiness.
‘Fight or Flight’ Isn’t the Only Human Stress Response
There’s another option, called ‘tend and befriend’
Right now, it’s easy to feel isolated, especially since physical isolation has been recommended as part of ethical engagement in collective care for most of the year. But organizing, volunteer, and mutual aid efforts are essential work, in every sense of the word, on both widespread and deeply personal levels.
Ultimately, what’s good for the community is good for you. Just like our stress response, this emotional and biological truth is part of our evolutionary legacy.