The Stress of Election Season and Current Political Climate

By: William Waters, Division Director

ACT: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

When I first immigrated to the USA from Australia, I was overwhelmed by the potent messaging in the environment. My immediate response was of choking on air thick with cultural messages. Having lived here sometime now, I have become desensitized and acculturated to some of the messaging. After 13 years I thought I was pretty much in the flow of culture. A recent trip to San Francisco to renew passports proved me wrong again. Never in my life have I felt so much “need” to look my best, and foolish for not having whitened my teeth.

While this may seem in jest, it is not. The people around me in San Francisco were not distressed. They were in their normative culture. It was not until I stepped out of my normative region of the Tri-Cities and into another than I realized again, that my own region too must also be filled with cultural messaging that I am too acculturated to, to notice.

I use this example because I want to talk to you about the upcoming 2020 election. WAIT! No, not the election candidates or their messages. Relax. I want to talk about the effects that messaging has on our psyche and behaviors. We are all going to experience changes in our interactions with others as a result of potent messaging surrounding the election. We’ve all heard the words “polarized” and “no one is listening” and how much all of politics has to do with – well, almost everything this year. So, let’s take a brief moment to develop some mental safety measures that may help us moderate our responses around the dinner table with family, friends, clients, and our work mates.

Psychological Flexibility

Let’s talk about mental flexibility or also known as psychological flexibility. These forces and messages in society are potent and regardless of political view point, they are reinforcing rigid beliefs and experiences in life that affect how we interact with the world. Our thoughts, behaviors, and decisions begin to seem more on auto-pilot and we begin to have less freedom in our choices.

So how do we shift towards being more mentally flexible? Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is based on Relational Frame Theory (which we will not go into save to say) but our repeated experience of something often becomes what we believe, and thereafter how we behave. ACT provides a means of breaking from these relational bonds with awareness and value based choices.

Here are some guiding ACT principles to guide you to being more flexible and free in your choices:

1.tThoughts are fused. Cognitive Defusion

Learn to notice the process of thought rather than getting caught up in the content. Through observing the process of thinking, thoughts that may have previously led to significant distress or unworkable behavior weaken.

2. Be Chill: Experiential Acceptance

The process of practicing non-judgmental awareness to internal and external events. Through this practice, one recognizes that there are some things that are out of our control, and that if we let go of the struggle with this, we can make decisions about the part we have control over – our actions.

3. Present moment

The process of becoming acquainted with sensory experiences is in the present moment. Through this, we are able to develop a platform of awareness that is a crucial foundation for the ability to be flexible. It feels nice to be grounded.

4. Values

The process of defining what is most important to an individual in their life. Through this process of connecting to a deeper sense of what matters, it is possible to define purpose, direction and decision making for a richer and more vibrant future. Values also refer to recognizing qualities of behaviors one would like to live in line with.

5. Self as Context

The process of contacting the “observer self,” a part of you that is able to witness thoughts, feelings, and actions at any moment. This part of you allows you to be mindful, and in practicing contact with the observing self, it is possible to be freed from previously tightly-held beliefs about oneself.

6. Committed Action

The process of taking steps towards valued goals while experiencing uncomfortable feelings and thoughts. Through this, one learns how committing to the valued action, rather than the outcome, can bring greater vitality.

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