Living with Political Stress in an Increasingly Polarized Society

Stressed-looking mature adult with gray hair and short beard looks serious at table while reading on tabletOver the past year, I have heard more and more therapists note that political stress is coming up more frequently in therapy. This seems to be a new trend, and it is not confined to the therapy room. It is worthwhile to consider why political stress is increasing and what we can do about it.

Causes of Political Stress

We are living in an increasingly polarized society. Renowned psychologist Kirk Schneider (2013) describes polarization as “the elevation of one point of view to the utter exclusion of competing points of view” (p. 1). He goes on to differentiate this from extremism and passion. While extremism and passion may be radical, they are not necessarily closed off from considering, and possibly even valuing, other perspectives.

Polarization—one’s own and exposure to that of others—contributes greatly to political stress. However, many people do not even recognize when they are slipping into polarized patterns. At times, the way one tries to avoid political stress may contribute to increasing it! For example, many news outlets are aligned with particular political perspectives. It may seem that watching the news outlets that are in closest alignment with your political views would decrease political stress, but this often is not the case. News sources that are aligned with a certain political perspective are often antagonistic toward perspectives that differ from their own. Listening to these polarized perspectives often creates or intensifies agitation and anger toward those with a different perspective.

It typically is less stressful to listen to calm, balanced perspectives from different viewpoints instead of listening to a polarized perspective aligned with your beliefs. In addition to the polarized perspectives stirring up anger, fear, and stress, they often contribute to a cycle of avoiding interacting with people who have different beliefs than one’s own. As most people have to spend quite a bit of time interacting with people who have different beliefs, anything that contributes to the cycles of polarization may make it more difficult and stressful to relate to people with whom one regularly interacts.

While your therapist may not always agree with your views, they should be trained to prevent or minimize how this impacts the therapy process. Good therapists also work hard to avoid judging people who come to see them regarding differences, and rather focus on understanding and respecting their beliefs.

Although it may seem preferable to interact primarily with people who share your political views, this may increase stress over time. Interacting with people with different perspectives is inevitable. In the long run, it may be less stressful to develop the communication and emotional skills that allow one to interact with people holding different beliefs without it causing excessive stress and discomfort. Of course, there will always be some individuals who choose not to interact with you in a tolerant manner; it may be best to minimize interactions with them.

Social media also can contribute to polarization and political stress. According to the Pew Research Center (2018), 69% of people in the United States use social media, and the most popular formats (Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram) are used daily by most users. As politics can be pervasive on social media, it is challenging to stay away from political debates. Often, what is shared on social media is not accurate, distorts the truth, presents only part of the story, or provides a sensationalized version of it. Interactions about politics on social media are regularly polarized and even hostile.

While divisive politics can be blamed for some of the political stress people are experiencing, there is more to it than this. It is important that people take responsibility for how they contribute to their own experience of political stress. The political discussions and debates can feel hard to avoid. This is especially true when active on various forms of social media. While it may not be possible to completely avoid political stress, it is important to consider how one can minimize its impact.

Ways to Deal with Political Stress

Political tensions are unlikely to decrease in the near future; however, there are a number of things you can do to minimize the impact of political stress:

  • Limit your time reading and watching the news so that you are informed, but not overexposed.
  • Avoid news sources that are overly dramatic or that tend to pit people with extreme perspectives against each other.
  • Minimize exposure to news sources with a reputation for showing only one side of the issue.
  • Limit your time on social media.
  • Avoid engaging in political debates on social media, especially with people you do not know.
  • Avoid reading the comments to posts on social media and news sites.
  • Take a “news vacation” or “social media vacation.”
  • Try to understand perspectives that are different than your own instead of reacting to them.
  • Remember, just because someone disagrees with you does not mean they are not a good person with good intentions.

What If My Therapist Disagrees with My Politics?

With political stress an increasingly popular topic in therapy, people going to therapy may wonder about their therapist’s political beliefs. Therapists generally do not share their political views with the people who come to them for help, which can create anxiety pertaining to how the therapist may be responding to what is disclosed relevant to politics.

Therapists are trained to work with people with different perspectives in a respectful manner. While your therapist may not always agree with your views, they should be trained to prevent or minimize how this impacts the therapy process. Good therapists also work hard to avoid judging people who come to see them regarding differences, and rather focus on understanding and respecting their beliefs.

Conclusion

Politics is a challenging and volatile topic that many wisely seek to avoid. Despite this, it is not possible to avoid politics altogether. It is important that people work to be aware of and minimize the negative effects of political discussions and the accompanying stress.

References:

  1. Pew Research Center. (2018, February 5). Social media fact sheet. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/social-media
  2. Schneider, K. J. (2013). The polarized mind: Why it’s killing us and what we can do about it. Colorado Springs, CO: University Professors Press.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Louis Hoffman, PhD, therapist in Colorado Springs, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Mort

    Mort

    March 27th, 2018 at 6:38 PM

    I basically stopped listening or watching or reading all news in the mornings–was setting me up for stress early in the day. I know I’m not the only one taking measures like this. Very difficult times this country is facing

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