Peace Talks Radio host Suzanne Kryder talks with Chicago, Illinois based therapist Nancy Molitor
Molitor:(Symptoms people stressed about politics are feeling include) Headaches, feelings of uneasiness or anxiety. We also saw a lot of people report insomnia, difficulty sleeping and also anecdotally, more stories about getting into political arguments with family members and coworkers in some cases which were on the rise.
Kryder: Nancy, media. How much media is too much?
NM: [laughs] That’s a very good question. Well, they asked about media consumption, particularly social media and cable news. The results indicated that among people who reported they were high utilizers of social media, their stress levels increased substantially more than folks who reported not being high utilizers of social media.
We know that anecdotally that what we see in our practices, particularly people who consume a lot of social media and engage in social media, they find themselves drawn to it. They know they shouldn’t engage in as much of it. They know they shouldn’t be up all night watching cable news, but they’re drawn to it. It’s almost a compulsivity to keep watching. They will also admit that when they turn it off, they feel better, but then they’re drawn back to it again.
We can certainly see the impact that it has on this group of peoples’ health; insomnia leading to late night binge eating, leading to weight gain and then stress about being overweight. It’s kind of a vicious cycle.
SK: Have you ever seen this level of stress in your years of practice?
NM: No, I have not. That’s an excellent question.
I certainly have not seen this level of stress, even after 9/11. Peoples’ stress symptoms certainly jumped up after that. A lot of people were terrified and losing sleep. Even people whose personal situation was not directly impacted, but what happened after that, after a period of reflection and grief and mourning collectively as a country, we pulled together. Whether you were self-identified as a democrat or republican or no political affiliation, people pulled together and came together in communities. They supported their country regardless of how they felt about war. Stress moderated itself. People were anxious certainly if they had loved ones who were fighting and had strong feelings about what was going on in different countries, but most people, it didn’t affect their day to day functioning. There was a collective sense that we want to support each other. People may have different feelings about what our country is doing, but we want to come together.
This is very different. In this period of country, people are feeling very divided. The results show that 66%, two-thirds of the survey respondents say that they’re somewhat seriously concerned about the future of our nation. That’s pretty significant.
SK: Nancy, when you say people now are very divided, I’m curious because sometimes we’ll hear that people of one political strain should talk to people of another political strain. What are your feelings about that? Should we be pulling together now and talking to each other even if we disagree?
NM: Yes. It’s absolutely essential that people find ways, common touch points, especially if they’re in a situation where they’re feeling increasingly polarized whether it’s at work, in their community, within their own family.
I’m hearing lots of very sad stories where people are being invited to graduation parties and weddings and very important events that families have looked forward to for a long time and somehow somebody brings up the subject of politics, the whole tenor of the situation goes downhill; people arguing at commencement ceremonies and not talking to each other. It’s very, very sad from an emotional standpoint.
These things can take a toll on future generations. We know that families who cannot pull together and avoid complete cutoffs eventually end up very psychologically unhealth. Future generations of families cannot keep in touch with each other which causes tremendous pain for years and years and often this taunts individuals and affects their ability to trust and to move forward with their own lives.
There are a lot of consequences I think that can come from this divisiveness if we don’t find a way to find common ground. In many cases what I tell people is that if you know that your brother-in-law feels very differently politically than you do, stay away from bringing up that subject. It seems obvious, but you would be amazed at how many people don’t realize that that’s not a good idea or they get drawn into it. They let themselves get baited and drawn into a discussion.
If you know you feel very strongly and you’ve had difficulty with certain individuals, be careful when entering a social situation where you know they’re going to be there. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say hi and talk with them, but there may be certain things that should be off limits.
I’ve even told people to make a plan, make an exit strategy. If you can make a joke about it and keep it light, that’s even better. “Uncle Joe, we’re not going to go there today and talk about what you feel about this political situation. Let’s just talk about something else that we agree on.” Have a strategy if the situation gets heated how you’re going to stay calm and whether in fact you have to extricate yourself or whether you can find a way to just move on. If it’s a big party, move on and talk to someone else.
This is particularly a problem at work. I’m hearing stories of people who are getting into arguments with their coworkers and their bosses get involved. I had a situation in my home town where the local car dealer who is known for excellent service had to put a sign up in their waiting area saying, “Due to the current political climate, we’ve turned off our TV and it’s not going to be showing cable news. You’re welcome to watch entertainment programming, but we won’t have those channels available in the waiting room. This is a topic of a lot of conversation in my town. I suspect there are other situations that are similar.
SK: Nancy, when you say we should find common touch points, as a psychologist, give us some examples of what those could be.
NM: Well, that’s a very good question. I would say things like issues that you may all agree with, issues that have to do with, for example, the quality of food we eat or talking about situations in the town.
For example, a new restaurant came into town that’s offering fresh food for the first time in your neighborhood or situations in towns are improving or schools are improving, there is a community fair, an art fair that everybody wants to talk about because you’re seeing some things for the first time that you haven’t seen before.
Most people can agree around things like children’s well-being, eating healthy food, promoting cooperation and volunteerism in some area. There is usually something that people can agree and disagree on something and still have a [inaudible] discussion.
There are situations where you don’t have to avoid discussing politics if you can set guidelines ahead of time; we’re going to agree to disagree on x, y, and z, but we’re going to agree that our kids need a better public school or something. You realize it’s not going to be conflictual. It’s usually things that aren’t conflictual, it just takes a little more time sometimes to find them.
SK: We often do see Nancy though that there is conflict, maybe even schools can be political or even food can be political.
NM: That’s right. That’s where you agree to disagree. You might agree on the overall arching concept that food is good or clean water is good. Who is cause the problem you might disagree on, so if you can have that kind of discussion, that’s terrific.
Also, being able to listen. We’ve talked about talking, but I think the other piece that’s very important – two-thirds of a conversation is being a good listener. That’s what we tell people in marital therapy.
The reason people get into trouble in close relationships is often not because they’re not talking or they’re not communicated, it’s because they’re not listening to their partner or to their colleagues.
Active listening and not feeling like you have to jump in and cut somebody off or trying to restate the argument, but just being able to listen. I tell people; “All you do is watch CNN and your brother-in-law watches FOX, maybe you should try watching something other than CNN just to see what the other side is saying. Sometimes that can be a breakthrough. If they can hear some of the arguments of people they think they don’t agree with, that’s another way to find some common ground.
It’s really trying to put yourself in the other persons’ shoes. If you care about somebody, even though you may violently disagree with them about something, you want to try to understand them and part of understanding is listening and also having empathy, trying to put yourself in that other person’s shoes, which can be very difficult if it’s a very divisive issue.
Peace Talks Radio host Suzanne Kryder talks with Albuquerque, NM based therapist Robert (Bob) Thomson
Kryder: I think of political stress on a continuum. There’s non-violence on one side all the way up to maybe even violence. We’ve seen that a little bit like the shooting of Gabby Gifford in 2011 and now in 2017, we’ve seen shootings on the baseball field. I’m curious, how do we keep that passion but not be violent?
Thomson: Well, I think it’s an important question and I think that it is complicated by how conflict is handled in a three-year-old’s life; what kinds of conversations happen between a mother and their child or a father and their child. Were there opportunities to be listened to and really understand? [Were there] alternative points of view being incorporated into any kind of conflict? If we grow up in an environment like that, that’s kind of the way we manage conflict in the world.
If we grow up in an environment where there is a right answer and there’s only one right answer, then that means that somebody is going to win and somebody is going to lose. A lot of people in the world I think get stuck in that kind of binary place where there has to be a winner and a loser versus there is a whole bunch of different points of view. If people could talk enough to really understand each other’s point of view and then work together on finding a solution that would work, we’d have a lot less conflict.
SK: Bob Thomson, what if a person grew up and they learned there was a right way and a wrong way? It seems like lots of parents teach their kids that there is a right way and a wrong way. Let’s say someone who comes in who is 45 or 50 years old and they’ve always believed and taught their kids the same things they learned, that there is one way, what do you do? Do we try to change that person? What would you do?
BT: I think it’s useful for the person to come to understand the way that they make sense out of the world. How did that happen? How did they internalize what the rules are and how you approach dealing with something? If they unconsciously manage things without ever having it get to a conscious level so that they realize what they’re doing, then they are just going to operate from that unconscious space, but once it becomes known to them; this is what I learned, this is why I learned it, here is how it translates into my behavior in the world, [they can ask] “Is it working for me?” I think sometimes when it’s not working, people will say, “Maybe there’s another way.”
My job is not to change anybody, it’s to help them change themselves if they want to.
SK: In terms of political stress, we’re seeing a continuum of people and some people do not want to even interact much less talk with people who are on the opposite end of their belief system. What is your recommendation? Should we be talking to each other or not?
BT: Well, of course we should be talking with each other. In the absence of talk, we have, often times, aggressive action and that’s not one of the things that I think is useful to any of us. If we’re going to resolve differences of opinions or different believe systems, we have to talk about it. We have to come to understand.
I always think of Gandhi when the civil war was going on and he was starving himself as a protest and the two leaders of the factions came to him and said, “You have to start eating.” He said, “Well, I will as soon as the civil war stops.” One of the men said, “There is no way out for me because I’ve done horrible things. I’ve killed women and children and babies.” Gandhi said, “There is a way for you.” The guy looked at him like he was out of his mind. He’s been starving, so clearly, he must be out of his mind. [Gandhi] said, “There are thousands of orphans out there now because of this war. You have to go and get a child who is an orphan, but it has to be a child from the other side and you have to bring them into your home and raise them with that religion that you’re fighting about, their religion.” That teaches understanding in a profound way.
I think that’s what we have to do in the world when we have all these people with different ideas. If we’re not communicating and really understanding each other because we can’t listen to each other, then trouble happens.
SK: Bob, you mentioned non-violence and Gandhi, isn’t that a political view?
BT: That’s a human view. Was he operating in the midst of political issues? Of course, but he was talking about really people understanding people. I think it was a much deeper way of understanding what’s happening and some possible ways to manage it. He is suggesting that if you are really in disagreement with somebody to the point where you would be willing to do violence, it probably would make sense to really come to understand that way much better than you do because you probably don’t.
SK: Bob, what if you want to engage, say go to lunch or talk to a person who is on the political spectrum opposite of you?
BT: I think we engage with people who have very different ideas than us all the time because each one of us is so unique.
My own sense about what helps communication go better when people have very different views is to be able to articulate clearly what the other person’s view is to the point where they are saying, “You really do understand where I’m coming from and why I’m coming from there.” That tends to have defenses going down, the person doesn’t feel like they have to turn the volume up and scream louder because I didn’t hear them because they know I did hear them because I’ve just articulated exactly their position to the point where they’re shaking their head that that’s exactly right.
Then we’re in a position to talk about what it’s like from our point of view and if, and it usually does, it starts to stir them up because it’s so different than their own, we can say, “Did I understand you?” and they will probably say, “yes.” We can say, “Try to afford the opportunity of understanding me too.” It helps.
SK: It sounds like you’re talking about reflective listening. I’m a trainer. I’ve trained people on this. I’ve had people in the groups I’ve trained say, “That’s bologna. I’m not doing reflective listening. It’s fake. I’m not doing it.”
BT: Right, people say that all the time because it’s such a different language. They’ve grown up learning a totally different language and we’re asking them to learn a new language and it feels strange. They become uncomfortable with it because they don’t know how to do it, so they say, “This is not real. It’s not right.” We can say, “Of course it’s not right. That’s because you have never done it this way.” If I want to learn to speak a foreign language, it’s going to feel very odd to me until I learn it and then it will be fine.
SK: In terms of political stress, Bob, it seems like I’ve seen people who, once they act, their stress level lowers. They may be really upset about something and they donate or volunteer or take action. What is the reason they seem calmer?
BT: Because people don’t feel so powerless when they do something. If they do something destructive, they will feel like they had had some power. If they do something constructive, they will feel like they had some power. Taking some kind of an action where you don’t feel helpless is useful. The kind and the course of the action that we take can be really helpful or really not so helpful.
SK: What else do you want to say that you haven’t said?
BT: I’m sure that there are plenty of things that haven’t been said. I’m very encouraged that we, as a community, are starting to talk about what I think are really critical and essential issues to make this a better country, so I’m for that.
SK: It seems like people aren’t talking to each other. It seems like people on opposite ends of the political spectrum are not talking.
BT: I think people are listening and I think that there has been an absence of listening, whether people are actually engaging, talking is the next step, but I think people are beginning to listen to each other in a different way. That’s hopeful. I think we need to encourage that.
SK: How do we encourage people to listen to each other?
BT: I think you’re doing it today.
SK: Without screaming. Sometimes people scream. Let me ask you one more thing about town halls. I’ve seen these YouTube videos of town halls and people are booing or they’re standing with their back to the speaker. Do you recommend that or not?
BT: I think people try to do the things that they think will have some kind of an impact in the direction that makes sense to them. I think what would be good would be if we, in this society, could figure out a way to really listen to each other and really talk with each other. We get into shouting matches and turn up the volume on our ideas and maybe we can drown out your idea and then you’re going to turn up the volume on [your idea] and nobody really hears anything. I think it would be good if we really started thinking more carefully about how we have been dealing with each other and try to start doing it in a better way.
SK: Let’s say you are a town hall and there are maybe 200 people there listening to a legislator, what would you do if you were upset with the legislator?
BT: Well, if I was upset enough to go and say what I needed to say, I think I would try to communicate as clearly as I could my position. I’ve done my part. I don’t necessarily go in thinking that it’s going to change things, but I go in thinking that I have something that I would like to contribute and I do my part by saying it, then I will be satisfied.
SK: And you don’t get into the whole mob [mentality] where you do what everyone else does to make it seem louder? You wouldn’t do that?
BT: Personally, I don’t tend to operate that way. I think there are people who feel more comfortable in a group because there’s more of a sense of power in a group, but no, I wouldn’t do that.
Peace Talks Radio host Suzanne Kryder talks with Minneapolis, MN based therapist Irene Greene
Kryder: Irene, thank you. Are your clients expressing stress about politics?
Greene: Yes, stress and anxiety and depression, not just in relation to politics, but I think the whole socio-political scene that’s happening right now, especially in the last several months.
SK: Explain the differences among anxiety, depression and stress.
IG: Depression includes a sense of powerlessness and helplessness. Anxiety is nervousness, agitation. It can include a sense of fear and worry. All of these can take a physical as well as an emotional hold on ourselves. Stress is a combination of all of that in lots of ways.
SK: What do you recommend people do about that? I could sit home and whine or I could do something or I could just feel my sadness. I’m kind of confused. How much do I feel my sadness or how much do I do something?
IG: First and foremost, I’m going to quote Audre Lorde; “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” My first and foremost answer to what you’re saying is radical self-care. I teach a lot of workshops on radical self-care; folks who want to be making choices about being active in their communities or want to address sensitive personal apathy that they feel as an oppressed individual, [people] who want to take seriously their own sense of self and self-care. That’s not selfish. That is essential to creating a strong connection with others to do social activism and to keep momentum going for change from the bottom up.
I’m a strong believer in grassroots, bottom up organizing. For some it means they attend their first rally. I have clients who hadn’t ever attended a march or a rally and they have been actively involved since the recent election in doing a number of things. They have attended the Women’s March which might have been the first action that they did in that kind of way. Many people are making phone calls, they’re having potlucks, they’re having connections with their neighbors all the way up to running for office, doing broad community education on how to run for office. If a person can donate $2 to someone on the street who needs $2 or $2 to a campaign of their choice, then that’s another option as well.
SK: Let’s talk about recommendations. What do you recommend for people about social media?
IG: I suggest that people take a break from social media and that they intentionally make an arrangement, even with a friend if they are worried they are going to miss something (which is usually the thing; “I’m going to miss something big and juicy”) make arrangements with a friend to let them know whatever might fit in that definition of something “big and juicy,” but that they take an intentional break from social media whether that be putting their phones away for an hour or a weekend.
SK: What if someone is on social media and they are flaming; they’re upset about something or they’re unfriending people, what would you recommend in that case?
IG: I actually think that there is nothing wrong with unfriending people. I think if people have a sense that they don’t want to be engaging with someone else, that they have the right and the choice to do that. That’s part of the nature of social media theoretically; it’s gives us extra choices and we can choose to engage or not.
SK: You said you’re okay with people unfriending people on social media. We have a right to pick who we want to interact with and some people would say they need to interact with people who disagree with us. How do we find a balance between these two ideas?
IG: That is a perfectly fine choice for people who want to engage with other folks who have a different point of view. I believe people have a choice about who they want to contact and connect with or not. So yes, if both people are interested in conversations to sincerely and legitimately hear and respect the other persons’ point of view, that’s a certain kind of conversation. If one person believes that they can change or their intention is to change the other persons’ point of view, that may or may not be true, but they can certainly try to engage in that conversation.
The current socio-political situation has caused a lot of problems in many families where there are political differences. This has caused a lot of pain. Certainly, if people want to communicate with each other and try to accept those differences … I have people in my family and people that I’ve worked with who have decided to agree to disagree for the larger sake of love and goodness in our family. Interpersonally, people can be very, very hurt by someone crossing out their vote at the poll that says who they can love or where they can go to the bathroom or where they can live.
SK: Irene, let me give you another situation. Let’s say a person is profiling other people. I do this. I look at a person’s car or how they talk or their appearance. What would you recommend about profiling?
IG: I think it’s an inevitable event. We “profile” others and make judgements about them. As a white person, I know that I am conditioned to, even viscerally, have certain reactions if a person who happens to be a black male is walking down the street and they’re crossing my path.
My job I believe is to be socially conscious about my internal privilege and my reactions based on white supremacy. I make lots of judgements and I need to be conscious and aware of that. Some of them may or may not be accurate. I might make a judgement about someone who has voted a certain way that may or may not be accurate about that person if I’m making personal judgements about them as to whether they will hurt me or harm me.
There are definitely people who might make a vote at the poll that cancels out my vote to love who I want to love or my clients’ choices about where they’re going to live or where they’re going to go to the bathroom. Those are choices that end up affecting people’s lives and well-being and welfare. I might have personal issues against the choice. I believe in a sense of common humanity for everyone no matter how they vote.
SK: So, if a person has this conditioned response, we become conscious of what we’re thinking and then do we do something about that?
IG: Once a person understands their privilege, a light goes on and it’s really hard to go back. There is, in my experience in working with folks who are dealing with their heterosexual privilege or dealing with their race privilege, their white privilege, their class privilege, when a person is intentional about wanting to learn about their privilege which is a choice and a decision in and of itself.
Many people who are privileged in this country do not accept or acknowledge that they have privilege, so right away, there is not going to be a potential for change, so someone needs to be able to recognize that they have privilege and be willing to look at their white guilt and look at their white shame and understand their privilege and then hopefully use their privilege to create access and equality and justice for others who do not share that same privilege.
SK: Irene Green, do you have any other tips or suggestions for our listeners on dealing with inequality or political stress?
IG: I think personal self-care is important, taking a break from social media is another important thing. One of the reasons for taking a break in social media is that there is recent brain research about the fact that when our brains are told something over and over again, even though initially we know it to be factually untrue, our brain starts changing the facts of that not being true into telling us that it is true. Repeated involvement with, for example, things that aren’t factual but are presented as facts, does wear on our brains and we start shifting how we think about things.
Having that consciousness is very important in what we listen to and participate in because we want to make sure that we are participating and engaging and listening to things that are actually factually true.
Hydrating and being in nature are actually two other important things for self-care. Being in nature is something that’s important for self-care because are natural beings. There is recent research in the last couple of years about how important it is for us to reconnect with nature; take a walk, read a book, look at a picture.
If someone is imprisoned behind four walls in the state prison system and they’re not able to go outside and take a walk, if they have access or the ability to conjure up a scene from nature, that can be very healing and nourishing and replenishing at least for that moment.
Communing with nature, it might sound like a lingo kind of thing, but it’s very important for us as animals in the world.