By Paresh Shah
If you’re feeling stressed about the presidential election, you’re not alone. Nearly 70% of Americans say the presidential election is a significant source of stress, according to a survey taken by the American Psychological Association. Amplified by the litany of tragic and traumatic events that have occurred in 2020, this year has inflicted unprecedented stress collectively felt across the nation, irrespective of what your political beliefs are. With the barrage of news, conversations, signs, flags and opinions, many people today are chronically locked into a “survival mindset” – a primitive brainstem function of the amygdala which sends a “fight or flight” distress signal to the body. This creates a surge of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to activate the nervous system. Pulse rates and blood pressure go up, muscles and the nervous system get tense and this cascade amplifies whatever emotion you are feeling.
While many negative events that have occurred are beyond the control of the average American, you do have the power to take care of yourself amid these stressful times. Anger, fear, confusion and anxiousness can take their toll on you emotionally, psychologically, and physiologically.
Lifter Leadership has compiled three simple mindfulness techniques from our team training programs for managing election and post-election anxiety that will help readers cope with difficult feelings, turn off the fight or flight mode, and allow you to respond versus react to events.
Mindfulness Technique #1: Duck breath. When we teach this to organizations, it often sparks some laughter, which is its own medicine, however laughter is not the direct intention of this mindfulness breath. This breathing technique works to turn off the fight or flight switch and calm the Vagus nerve. Inhaling is linked to the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the fight-or-flight response and exhaling is linked to the parasympathetic nervous system, which influences our ability to relax and calm down. Controlling the parasympathetic nervous system is the Vagus nerve. Stimulating the Vagus nerve with this technique signals to the body it is time to relax and turn off the “fight-flight” switch.
Recent research has also revealed that those with higher Vagus nerve activation are more prone to emotions such as compassion, empathy, gratitude, love, and happiness. Mindfulness-based breathing techniques, such as duck breath, will help you reduce negative emotions that can be applied today and in the future.
Step one: With your eyes opened or closed, breathe in very deeply through your nose and exhale and flap your lips like a duck for as long as you can with pursed lips (imagine you are an inflated balloon slowly releasing air from the rubber tip)
Step two: It may help to count to yourself (inhale 1,2,3,4; exhale 1,2,3,4,5,6..for as long as you can). Continue this technique, breathing in deeper every time and exhale longer every time, if possible.
Step three: After two minutes, you will feel a sense of calm. Practice this technique four to five times a day or as needed and gracefully move out of fight or flight mode into a freedom and calm.
Mindfulness Technique #2: Compassion, Reactions, and Common Ground. Having different beliefs from our friends, family, and coworkers is normal, but this can evoke negative emotions that steal our inner peace. I recently had a bit of ‘to and fro’ with a friend from high school–we disagreed about some important things—so I called upon this mindfulness technique that Lifter Leadership teaches. When having differences of opinions, we must meet them with compassion and empathy – from their life experience, this is where they are.
I’ve noticed in this emotionally supercharged year, it seems people have become quicker to point the finger and accuse someone else of being “wrong.” For some, it has become a knee-jerk reaction. Psychologist Viktor Frankl profoundly stated, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” This is wise to remember. Frankl points to how often people react without being mindful and regret it. Considering Frankl’s statement, when we have these reactions, we neglect to utilize this “space.” Learning to recognize these reactions allows us to make better use of this space, grow as a person, and choose to respond rather than react. Take note of the consequences of these reflexive reactions, consider better responses, contemplate on why you reacted the way you did—but most importantly, be compassionate to yourself and others.
Stepping away from the relentless negativity in this divisive state of affairs, we challenge clients to find common ground with people they disagree with (often between divisions in corporate settings). If someone is stoking your emotional fire, think of three things you have in common with this person, other than politics. Do you love the same sports team or the same music? Have you had shared experiences that brought you joy and connection to that person? Common ground opens the door for communication and helps build connectivity and trust, while turning the focus away from emotional topics. Through common ground, we can begin to understand better, more empathetically, and even expand our own perspectives.
Mindfulness Technique #3 – Find Gratitude. Gratitude, and particularly the expression of it, is the most social of emotions. As our CEO, Dr. Eliza Mountcastle Shah speaks to in her keynote on the Anatomy of Gratitude (www.liftersrising.com/talks). Gratitude has been associated with understanding other people’s perspectives, empathy, and “feelings of relief.” Reversing some of the fight or flight hormonal surges, expressing gratitude leads to stable increases in Dopamine, Serotonin and Norepinephrine-- the neurotransmitters that are responsible for happiness, motivation and self-discipline. The positive physiological effects are enduring, as distinct from the spike or hit of Dopamine that is derived from addictive substances and behaviors – and certainly social media posts that spike you back into fight or flight. Limit your exposure to the news, social media, or other stressors and avoid engaging in election discourse online.
I suggest turning away from the screen and trying a fun exercise which we at Lifter Leadership call “Pin the Tail on Gratitude.” This is similar to the children’s game of pin-the-tail-on-the donkey (no political point being made here). As children, we would close our eyes, spin around, and then try to pin the tail on the donkey as close as we could. We suggest a similar concept for team members. Close your eyes, briefly spin around, then open your eyes-- take note of your surroundings and try to name as many things as you can that you are grateful for in thirty seconds. In my case, in writing this article, and practicing this technique, I opened my eyes and they landed on my laptop with a browser open to a search I did for a Van Halen concert I went to in 1983. I found it and am grateful that, unlike any generation in the history of time, I could find and re-live, for free, the entire concert I went to, back in high school.
Gratitude flowing, I then realized, that the friend I was “arguing” with on Facebook, may in fact, have easily been someone with me at the concert, long before we had strong political views and simply shared a love of the same music. Instantly, I felt better, not as peeved at my friends’ point of view and able to focus on writing this piece. These mindfulness techniques can help calm us down, mitigate overwhelming feelings, broaden our perspectives, improve our communication with others, as well as improve our psychological and physiological health. I encourage you to take three minutes of your day to practice these techniques, which have helped me, and I hope helps others – irrespective of who they voted for.
We can pick up on the constructive work of being in disagreement in the forthcoming months. For now, give yourself a treat and turn off that fight or flight hormone surge.
At Lifter Leadership we serve awakening executives who value whole human leadership as a means to lift performance and create a world that works for all. Through expert live and Zoom workshops and executive coaching, we teach clients the 4 Lifter Mindshifts that help teams use conflict, disagreement and tension to help catapult to higher-order solutions: a shift from tolerating diversity to activating diversity, resulting in innovation, engagement, trust, loyalty and team harmony and well-being.
For more on how Lifter Leadership can drive connection and community for performance, visit www.liftersrising.com. For a free excerpt of the Non-Obvious Guide to Remote Working with mindfulness techniques for remote workers, go to https://www.liftersrising.com/library.
Remember, stay calm, respond vs react and lift yourself out of anxiety and stress with a few minutes of time for yourself, amidst the chaos of this changing world. Be well.