Politics in the media sure can raise your blood pressure. When our media are abuzz with fierce debate about an election or a hot button issue, it’s a natural reaction to want to flee from that kind of venomous environment.
Media give us the opportunity to be connected around the world and around the clock. Sometimes, though, connection can seem stifling. During political debates, social media carry our friends’ and colleagues’ political commentary. This is surely a wonderful freedom and gives us some power to voice our views to an audience. But sometimes it can make things worse. Who doesn’t have a friend or a whole troop of friends on Facebook or Twitter whose political views make our skin crawl?
Do you find yourself in this position? You open Facebook or Twitter to innocently post the latest photo of your dog/cat/nephew only to read poison pen posts about your favorite candidate or issue. Then you start to wonder why you became friends with such haters in the first place. Your fingers are poised over the “unfriend” button, and then you take a deep breath and think better of it.
Even kids are sick of politics it seems. Above is a viral video of a four year old girl crying because she's tired of hearing about politics.
Politics is, after all, is one of the two--count ‘em--two things you are not supposed to discuss with friends for fear of ruining the friendship. (Religion, of course, is the other… and also frequently discussed on social media.)
Apart from social media are the more traditional sources of tension that can have you reaching for your bottle of Tums. There are formal debates, daily battles over issues, sound bites and the endless barrage of political ads. In an election year, one wonders how the residents of Ohio hold on to their sanity.
Why are political debates in the media so rancorous and emotionally disturbing? Part of the answer is that political messages are designed to arouse our emotions. Emotions are thought to be the bedrock of motivation and a motivated citizen is a citizen who presumably will vote. So when a political discussion in the media makes your blood boil, just remember that this was the intent. Political shows need an audience to pay the bills. If you can get your audience to feel something strongly, they will tend to tune in again and again.
Where do these powerful emotions come from? Politically driven emotions can be so intense because they are tied to core values and to the need for control, which are key human motives. The forces behind the campaigns and the political programming want to grab their constituencies in deeply emotional ways. They want them to invest and keep coming back for more. So they go after core values. They go after a deep human need to be in control of our own destinies -- to be on the team that is in power.
Russ Geen, one of my mentors--a man who literally wrote the book on Human Motivation(1)--always stressed that people are more motivated by a fear of failure than by an attraction to success. When news programs and politicians remind us that our country may be put in the hands of those who do not share our values, they are stirring up powerful fears. This fear mongering leads us to dehumanize the opposition. It leads us to a false separation from our fellow men and women. It drives us to distraction as well as driving the needle up on the blood pressure meter.
Is there anything that can be done to cope with the stress that comes from political debates in the media? Here are some tips, in no particular order:
1) Keep in mind that many political messages are designed to upset you. This may not be a comfort to some, but it has helped me calm down more than once. This is perhaps most pertinent with the most heinous of political shock jocks and the real bottom feeders. When I find myself going off on a tirade against some hateful comment by a political pundit or “entertainer,” I remind myself that all they want is attention. They may not even believe what they are saying. They said it just to make the daily headlines or sound bites. When I let myself get too exercised about it, I am giving them what they want. In other words, there’s a time when you realize that you are taking the wrong thing too seriously.
2) Laugh so you don’t cry. We all know that “the news” and the way it is delivered has changed dramatically. The lines are blurred between entertainment and journalism in ways both positive and negative. People 18 to 34 are now more likely to get their news from The Daily Show or the Colbert Report than from CNN(2). They say that laughter is the best medicine. Laughing, even or especially at your own "side," has a wonderful way of diffusing tension.
3) It’s okay to get away. If politics raises your blood pressure, one perfectly valid coping mechanism is to reduce the amount of politics you see. Skip commercials and take a break from Twitter during times when you know the messages will vex you most. Try finding sources that are truly more fair and balanced and finding constructive ways to get involved. If you are concerned about education, turn off the news and volunteer. Turning off programs designed to scare viewers sends a message to the networks and producers. Denying hate mongers an audience is a way of voting them off the island.
4) Listen to your own voice. A recent study showed that the people who are the most stressed by politics in the media (as measured by their blood cortisol levels) were the least likely to vote(3). Stress and fear can be paralyzing. Unplug yourself from the chatter and ask yourself what’s important to you and only you. Your power lies, in part, in your vote…so go vote for whomever you like and really remember how valuable that right to vote is.
5) Cut your friends some slack. That friend whose Tweets or Facebook posts make steam come out of your ears is also the person who stuck up for you in that fight in middle school, who drives your kids to school or who tells the jokes that really make you laugh. Respect your friends' rights to hold another opinion. Diversity is healthy. Let your friend steer her own ship. It may be that in extreme cases where nothing else has worked, it may be the best idea to unfriend someone. But I think those cases are the minority.
Presidents and politicians will come and go. America will survive. You don't have to win every political battle. You are a big enough person to like someone who doesn’t share your enthusiasm for your favorite candidate. Remember that the people in your life are more important than politics.
1 Geen, R. G. (1994). Human Motivation: A social psychological approach. New York: Wadsworth.
3 French, J. A., Smith, K. B., Guck, A., Alford, J. R., & Hibbing, J. R. (2011, July). The stress of politics: Endocrinology and voter participation, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Society for Political Psychology, Istanbul, Turkey.