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Do You Suffer From Election Stress Disorder?

Politics in the wrong part of the brain

National elections are tough times for those of us with a bi-partisan nature. They’re even worse for therapists who try to help people access the Adult brain under stress. (That’s the prefrontal cortex, which regulates impulses and carries out our more profound and humane cognitive functions.) Staying in the Adult brain consistently is hard enough during non-election years. Under stress, the Toddler brain (emotional, all-or-nothing, “Mine! No!”) hijacks the Adult brain, impairing its ability to take other perspectives, weigh evidence, see nuance, plan for the future, and create value and meaning. The Toddler brain is highly susceptible to emotional contagion; toddlers take on whatever negative emotions are around them, as any parent who has been tense or irritable near one can attest.

It seems that in every election, poles remind us that the public is fed up with negative campaigning and endless, misleading advertising. We're appalled at the costs of election cycles, which doubles that of the Civil War, with a duration that exceeds America’s participation in World War I. The military words, "campaign" and “war chest” aptly describe political contests; the first casualty in war and politics is truth.

The maelstrom of the current election has been personal for me, as my dearest friends are at opposite sides of the political spectrum. My inbox is bombarded by negative points about the policies and characters of both candidates. Passionate arguments that would not, to be kind, pass peer review on their merits are put forth by good and bright people.

I understand that certainty is an emotional, not an intellectual state that requires limiting the amount of information considered. And of course political campaigns are designed to exploit bias rather than expose it. Still, I wonder how candidates can seem entirely certain about enormously complex problems. Well, I shouldn’t wonder. Few endeavors can be more stressful than running for president. Under stress most of us retreat to the Toddler brain, where we fall prey to all-or-nothing thinking and employ the Toddler coping mechanisms of blame, denial, and avoidance.

Part of my election stress disorder may be due to the fact that I'm vastly overworked. National elections jam-pack our boot camps for couples who suffer from resentment, anger, or emotional abuse. Many people download the negativity of their environment and take it out on the closest people to them. A web of emotion connects us all, and did so long before the Internet became its national conduit. Political campaigns set the web of emotion ablaze with negativity.

My great hope is that one day politicians will embrace an inconvenient truth. To make the country stronger, we must be compassionate to the people closest to us, respect the people we encounter, tolerate differences among all people, and allow a little light to spread through the web of emotion. We either send out respect and good will from the Adult brain or download resentment and anger into the Toddler brain.

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