The final debate started relatively peacefully, at least by 2016 standards. But by the end, you may have been watching with fists clenched, stomach knotted and heartbeat accelerated. You may have gone to bed with emotions charged, your mind racing. And now you’ve woken up knowing that talk about the election will be largely unavoidable.
The good news is there are guided meditations available for the sole purpose of calming your election stress.
By now we’ve established that election-induced stress is a real and common phenomenon afflicting more than half of American adults, negatively impacting their work, their relationships and their health. People have been tweeting about their stress eating because of it and giving in to other vices such as drinking and smoking marijuana.
So last week the meditation app 10% Happier enlisted several leading instructors to put together “election emergency” meditations to offer tips and breathing exercises to help our stressed-out populace manage our emotions.
The app is an offshoot of the book of the same name by ABC News anchor Dan Harris, who wrote about a panic attack he had on air and how he subsequently turned to meditation for his stress.
The idea to offer meditation specifically for election stress was broached only recently by a colleague, and Harris said he jumped on it because he needed it, too.
“For months, I have found myself compulsively checking the news, and stress eating during the debates. For example, during the last one, I consumed half of a gigantic bag of popcorn. And I know I’m not alone,” Harris said in an email. “Everybody I know — from my personal and professional life — is expressing a whole range of difficult emotions vis-a-vis the election. From anxiety to anger to annoyance.”
In one short guided session, titled “Exposure to Media,” well-known meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg begins: “Let’s say you’re reading something online or something on the news or you are in conversation with somebody and you feel triggered and this wealth of emotion starts pouring through you.” She then talks you through how to recognize and acknowledge the feelings, and then to realize they’re always changing, rising and then falling away.
“I tried to think of what particular habits of mine were adding to the distress. I see in my own mind the tendency to catastrophize and I realize it’s just projection. I’ve seen that if I look at my own fear, I see that the most painful place is the sense of helplessness,” Salzberg said in an interview. “We absorb the toxic energy going on around us, we don’t feel centered, we also forget the things we really care about. The breath will be with us if we’re stuck in traffic or watching a debate. We can always use that as a resource to re-center or reground. It’s very portable.”
Research studies have shown that meditation does reduce stress, and even more so, a Harvard neuroscientist found in 2015 that it can actually change the brain by thickening several areas, including one region that deals with mind-wandering and self-relevance.
Salzberg, who has been practicing meditation for 45 years, said her students bring up the election a lot. She said they are anxious, but they also feel angered and ashamed by how much the conversations trigger them. Politics is by nature a passionate subject, but Salzberg said she has never seen the degree of stress caused by an election as she has this year. Part of it is the toxicity of the environment, she said, and also that the discord makes people feel so disconnected from one another.
Meditation is a “real refuge” for people with an established practice, she said, “because they know they can have a feeling but they don’t need to take it to heart, it’s washing through like the weather.” For those just turning to meditation to get through the next 20 days, she counseled that it’s important for them to remember that it’s normal to have thoughts interrupt a meditation, but the key is to recognize that the thought is there, to let it pass and return focus to the breath.
The six guided meditations targeting election stress are foundational, designed for anyone to pick up the practice. Salzberg said people should begin doing one or more every day between now and Nov. 8.
“It will help you to be centered, it will remind you: You have tools,” she said. “You can center your attention on your breath, you can do love and kindness. That’s the important thing; that we have a path, that we have a way forward. We do have a world beginning on Nov. 9 and it will be a lot better if we bring more awareness and kindness into that world.”