Contributing author: Lisa Wimberger
How would you describe the tone of any election year, in particular this one? My guess you are not quickly reaching for words like empathy, compassion, peace, ease or grace. More likely words like tension, disconnect, hopeless, helpless, disempowered, nervous, enraged or scared come to mind. These are common perceptions that seem to frame times of political decision and change. Here’s something to think about. If you were teaching a young child about logic, rationale, and quality decision-making skills would you ever suggest they make their decisions from their anger, desperation and confusion? No.
A caring and dedicated teacher would help the child slow down, bring the big picture to mind, evaluate cause and effect, imagine long term consequences, and cultivate compassion before making a decision. We see parents do this kind of coaching all the time with toddlers. So why would adults be any different?
If we use the toddler mentality as a frame of reference then the following statements sound like wonderful coaching opportunities.
Yet there is validity to how we feel when we are scared. And that is precisely what political inflammation is—a platform of fear. Politics itself does not have to be fear-based but it takes work and effort to infuse compassion into any system designed to regulate, guide and control. We are in a time of political fear and inflammation fueled by a sense of dire urgency. What exactly does this inflammation feel like? It feels a bit like a dire sense of urgency to save and preserve the lives we’ve worked so hard to create for ourselves. It goes beyond a normal desire to maintain a healthy status quo, or evolve an unhealthy one. It borders on an anxiety level where we feel our future is in grave danger and if things go in THAT direction we are doomed. Political inflammation translates into a pervasive sense of gloom and fear. This type of translation leads us to extreme statements like, “If that party wins I’m moving out of the country!” or “If we elect THAT person I might as well kiss my future goodbye.” While there may be some negative truth for you if the other party wins, the larger truth is that we always have options for our actions, and evolution on the horizon.
A body and brain model can help us understand this system a bit better.
Think of a car that runs well and is maintained. This car would pass emissions testing and its exhaust fumes would stay within a theoretical safe range. If the car were poorly maintained, the motor stressed and strained, over time it would fail emissions testing and its exhaust might look like black smoke. In this scenario the exhaust is inflammation. It is the toxic byproduct of a cellular organism unable to function efficiently. It is the state that arises from our cells spitting out too much toxic waste in the form of free radicals.
There are many causes of this sort of physiological inflammation, but one major proven cause is stress and stress hormones. And these hormones increase when we are in states of fear, or limbic functioning. So allowing our perceptions to marinate in a fear based stew that is often representative of our country’s election year can cause our body and mind to work inefficiently. In fact, inflammation can happen in the brain as well, causing us emotional dysregulation, cognitive impairment, and a predisposition to our more primitive responses as we exhaust our ability to think clearly or hold ourselves to higher standards.
What Does Neuroscience Have To Say?
Current neuroscience has shed some light on a very interesting relationship between a fear-based mentality of “us and them,” and a predisposition to our primitive or limbic response to the world. Our limbic system is designed to help us attune to our basic survival needs, to make sure they are met, and to protect them fiercely if we perceive they are threatened. It is a very primitive mammalian characteristic which ultimately saves our lives when we need it to, but is overused and habitual in our day-to-day lives. It’s actually effortless to overuse this system mostly because it was wired up in utero ready to serve us as early in our development as possible. By the time we are born we may already be familiar with how to perceive and process stress. Additionally, the limbic system is a preconscious system, meaning it’s activity is measurably faster than conscious thought activity. So it becomes a “punch first, ask questions later” sort of system. (1) This type of pre-consciously driven efficient system lends itself easily to a subconscious default for viewing the world.
It seems that perpetuating a life built upon scarcity, fear, and scare tactics can literally support a state of inflammation in the body.
When we predominantly use our limbic functioning to govern our behaviors, we are basically running the body in a chronic state of stress or arousal. This state of elevated stress hormones, inflammation markers, and blood sugar is not a sustainable state. In fact, we now know something about the way this chronic arousal state inhibits the rational and problem-solving portion of our mind, causing us to become reactive and impulsive.
In a study done on self-reported political affiliation, it was shown that one’s neurophysiology changed considerably when viewing faces of candidates in the opposing party. (2) If, by nature, we are spending much of our waking state this election year being bombarded by the need strongly affiliate with us’s and vehemently oppose the thems, then it stands to reason our inflamed emotions and perception are strong correlates for the limbic response. Being reactive and impulsive gets easier, more frequent, and much more the norm of our behavior. No quality long-term behavior comes from this state.
A Brain-Based Approach To Balance
So the issue becomes how to self regulate in the midst of an “us and them” heated political time. Here are three tips to help you during this time of political inflammation.
Balance as much political news with breaks from media. Take extra time to nurture the self with walks in the park, dedicated time to listen to your favorite music, exercise, and revisit your hobbies. The more time we spend nurturing ourselves, the less time we’ve spent steeping in a sense of hopelessness. The brain shifts easily with time, focus and repetition. So if we break the incessant repetition of fear-based thoughts and replace them with others we literally weaken the strength of the fear lens we were looking through. It’s a matter of time, repetition and focus. This can literally bring down levels of body and brain inflammation. (3)
Practice putting yourself in someone else’s shoes each day. Choose someone you consider to be neutral in your life, like maybe the mailman or someone else. Spend five minutes imagining you are them and what it would be like to have those day to day experiences. Practicing empathy can be a powerful way to exercise the opposite of an “us and them” predisposition.
Bring your diet into balance where sugar becomes less prominent and fats and proteins come into balance on your plate. A good balance of carbohydrates, fats and proteins is a great way to support the self-regulation systems and address the inflammation that arises from chronic stress or fear arousal.
A two-party system promises to ever only appease half of the population, leaving the other half in states of perceived stress. So the formula seems to be to inflame all of the population only to have half of them, at best, feel relief in the foreseeable future. This is not a model for health, compassion or empathy. The power to break this model is within each of us. And it starts with gaining control over our internal stress and inflammation so that our bodies and minds begin to perceive and even create the world differently. Time, repetition and focus might just be our mantras for a new age.