The United States of Anxiety

08/04/2017 03:52 pm ET Updated Aug 08, 2017

I awoke this morning with significant anxiety about the current political climate and future of our country. Did you? Turns out we’re not alone.

In a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2017, for the first time, a majority of Americans (across the political spectrum) rank fear about the current political climate (57%) and future of our country (66%) as a leading cause of stress…running in line or ahead of the old standbys: money, work and the economy.

The upside: anxiety and stress can signify that we care deeply about something. (If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t be upset about it.) We see this in the increasing number of people who report wanting to get involved or are actually getting involved (many for the first time), with the aim of building and supporting a more caring, civil and sustainable democracy.

The downside: our default setting under stress means we most often end up modeling and even inciting the behavior we deeply want to change. Divisiveness and incivility are not only “out there,” they’re “up here” (point to your head). Social behavior is highly contagious, and amplified in groups; so, we can all end up doing more harm than good, even with the best of intentions. Thankfully, we can learn to override our reactions, and instead model and inspire a wiser democracy.

Many in the US have expressed a desire to connect or reconnect with people who have different ideological, cultural and political views. Yet, many of those same folks report feeling woefully ill-equipped for the task.

There’s good reason for caution. A profusion of moral, social and evolutionary psychology illustrates why engaging courageously (with an open heart as well as an open mind) across difference can be incredibly hard in practice.

And, as decades of research indicates, “There is no enlightenment effect.” Knowing that we can overreact or act in very unhelpful ways under pressure does nothing to change our reactions.

The current political climate heightens the challenge by fostering hyper-partisanship. Research shows that Americans increasingly tend to live near and interact with people who think similarly, one of the contributing factors to elevated “Us vs Them” mindsets. And Jonathan Haidt, professor of moral psychology at New York University and the author of the Righteous Mind, describes how hyper-partisanship binds and blinds us.

Hyper-partisanship, Haidt explains, binds us to “our” group, and blinds us both to problems within “our” group, as well as to the concerns and opinions of people outside of our circle. This means our brains create a powerful sense that “We” matter (and are right), and “They” don’t matter (and are wrong.) This reaction often triggers a move from disagreeing with people with different views, to having disdain and even disgust and contempt for “Them.”

“Do not become the thing you’re fighting,” Van Jones

During and after the election, I spoke with lifelong activist, civic leader and current CNN commentator, Van Jones. Van knows the dangers of hyper-partisanship and rigidity among activists on all sides with passion, but few skills for open-hearted, inviting action.

As Van said, when people care about a cause, or feel that people are being unfairly or badly treated, “We don’t always look very loving” to people on the other side of the divide.

The Challenge Of Unattended Stress

Over eighty years of social and cognitive behavioral psychology and more recent neuroscience shows that, under stress, any of us can easily fall into acting in incredibly harmful and unconscious ways—even ways that run counter to our deeply held values and goals. The human stress response constricts not only blood vessels, but perspective and the ability to think clearly and care for others. Tragically, this prison of stress-related tunnel vision and heightened sense of threat hampers what could be helpful in these situations, like compassion and curiosity, and the human desire and ability to learn and connect with others.

Conformity research from the ‘60’s also illustrated that people feel tremendous discomfort going against a group they associate with, and easily react with disdain for those in a group who do dissent. Ostracism from a group registers as physical pain in the body. This makes sense, because our bodies are wired for physical survival. And, as social animals, belonging to a group is critical for survival. When we dissent, or see others in our group dissent, it registers as a threat to our survival.

In this contracted state, we can all significantly damage our relationships, organizations and ultimately our shared democracy, paradoxically, especially when we deeply care.

The Anxious Brain

Although some people are better with ambiguity, not knowing, newness, difference and uncertainty, we all fall along a spectrum in terms of how our brains respond. Characteristics of the anxious brain:

  • Safety seeking
  • Self- and/or group-focused – I/We matter and You/They don’t
  • Tunnel vision – everything rides on this situation, it’s everything
  • Need to know - ambiguity feels unsafe and often unbearable
  • Zero-sum game – “either/or” thinking versus imaginative of new possibilities
  • Simplicity seeking - Things are simple and knowable
  • Rigid and certain – “I/We know the right answer.” There is no doubt
  • Black and white thinking: “I/We are right/good; You/They are wrong/bad”
  • Familiarity – my group is what matters and is safe
  • Fixed mindset – this situation, person, dynamic will never change
  • Harmony – we all need to agree and conform, loyalty above all else

Any of these reactions sound familiar? Sadly, most of these anxiety-based reactions are the opposite of what we need in a complex, dynamic, multi-cultural, multi-ideology society.

So when politicians offer us simple solutions, certainty, good guys and bad guys, we’re right, they’re wrong, our brains sing, “Hallelujah!”. But we shouldn’t.

The ability to override these reactions is critical for learning from each other to imagine and create better solutions to the challenges of our time. Learning by definition requires being open to new or different ideas or ways of seeing.

Courageous democracy rests on collective courage.

Courage and empathy, like any character traits, are a set of behavioral habits. We can all learn these traits through practice and social support to model compassion and courage to inspire it in others and in society.

Start with a cornerstone of a healthy democratic society, the ability to have “courageous conversations”- openhearted and open-minded dialogue - across difference.

The Possibilities

Improving the current climate of division and disdain for our fellow Americans begins with actively overriding instinctual brain responses. And actively is key. Our brains are highly malleable to our thoughts and actions. The more we practice making different choices, the easier it becomes. We can literally rewire our brains every time we choose the courage to care instead of defaulting to disdain.

Remember, it’s not our fault that we often react in unhelpful, even disastrous, ways when interacting with people with different views or backgrounds. And, resisting these reactions when they’re not needed is both our responsibility and the greatest source of our possibilities.

Below are seven evidence-based practices we can use right now, wherever we are, to build our capacity as courageous leaders for a more courageous democracy.

Seven Ways to Foster Courageous Conversations

Cue a courageous mindset: Start to identify challenging situations as, “This is an opportunity to strengthen my courage for a better society,” (versus “Oh Sh__!”). This shift literally changes the way stress hormones affect our bodies. (Kelly McGonigal, PhD, describes how this works.)

Cue a growth mindset: Remember that everyone can grow and change, including you. This simple shift in mindset has us more willing to cooperate with people that we perceive as different, and increases the likelihood of growth and change.

Be compassionate to ourselves and other people: “Our brains are not our fault,” says Paul Gilbert, PhD, and author of the Compassionate Mind. None of us asked for these highly-reactive, “tricky brains.” When you find yourself in a stressful conversation, think of phrase or image that helps you feel compassion for yourself and the other person, like, “We’re both doing our best.” Or, “This is hard for both of us.” Or, call to mind an image of something or a person that represents compassion and courage to you, like a sunrise, Mandela, Jesus, a parent or teacher.

Remember your own capacity for courage: Review times you’ve been courageous, open-hearted in the face of fear. Nancy Sims, CEO of the Toigo Foundation, recalls summoning courage when her father died when she was 19. By comparison, “Courage in my professional life seemed much less daunting.” Take a minute or two to really remember the details. Note the feelings and sensations in your body. According to Rick Hanson, PhD, and author of Hardwiring Happiness, this helps create the neural networks for future courage.

Acknowledge & celebrate courage: Acknowledge it because courage (by definition) carries a perceived risk, and acting courageously goes counter to many biological instincts for safety. So, acknowledge it when you see it, regardless of the source. One of the biggest tragedies of fear is that it kills our ability to imagine that another way is possible. And because courage is contagious, raising up courageous action reminds us all what’s possible, and cues us for future courageous action.

Practice: Practice new ways of acting, starting with situations where you get tripped up. Get up on your feet and “dry run” a challenging conversation, out loud, with a trusted friend. According to Lynne Henderson, PhD, creator of the Social Fitness™ methodology and author of the Social Fitness Guide (and colleague at Courageous Leadership), “Practicing creates the muscle memory for a more courageous response in the future. Stress becomes a cue for mindful, courageous action versus avoidance or worse.”

Start small: have a conversation with someone you care about and share an existing connection, with the simple goal of remaining curious to how and why someone sees thing as they do. You can think of it as learning to play their part in a movie. Don’t try to win an argument; learn to appreciate that person’s point of view. Find a point of empathy. And don’t worry; your point of view will be right where you left it when you’re done trying on someone else’s shoes. And maybe, just maybe, your perspective will have expanded.

Reasons for Hope

The great news is that there are hundreds of organizations, such as the Village Square, Civil Politics and Junior State of America for teens, working to improve democracy through dialogue and civic engagement across differences.

Find the method or outlet that works for you to continue to participate in this imperfect, dynamic, and yet still grand experiment of democracy. Just remember to practice.

After the election, Van’s organization, Dream Corps, announced their #LoveArmy initiative to sign up people committed to taking political action expressed with love instead of hate to counteract the corrosive political climate of division and disdain for “the other.” The #LoveArmy defines itself as “a value-based movement fighting for a country where everyone counts.” The #LoveArmy has attracted over 150,000 people committed to using love instead of hate while taking political action.

Van hopes that these people become (some of the many) ambassadors of compassionate action in challenging times to create a better world. Understanding that’s easier said than done, the LoveArmy is training members how to build the awareness and skills to be compassionate and skillful in challenging times, including an evidence-based “Courageous Leadership for a Courageous Democracy” program later this year.

Here’s the thing: every act of democracy – like learning to build our capacity for discomfort in the face of difference, our ability to be curious, empathetic and open, even if we ultimately disagree and work towards a different outcome – grows our humanity and our collective freedom. What better aim could we have for ourselves and society?

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