With the 2012 election for president of the United States now behind us, both the winning and the losing candidate might benefit from meditating on this quote from the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tze: "Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become your character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny." If we are to follow the logic of Lao-Tze, the candidates, President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, contributed to the shaping of their destinies with their very thoughts and words. Whether or not we can accept this line of thinking, it's safe to say that the stress level in our great nation ran high in the lead-up to Election Day and shows no sign of abating, as the scene on Capitol Hill is as divisive as it's ever been. We, too, might benefit from a bit of positive thinking right now, if only to mitigate the effect incessant worry can have on our overall sense of well-being. A shifting political landscape is one thing, but losing our peace of mind and health over it is worth taking a few steps to prevent.
Turn on any cable news show or open a newspaper and the overall anxiety level of the nation -- on both sides of the political spectrum -- becomes immediately evident. The stress of partisan politics is wreaking as much havoc on the physical health of the American public as it is on the economy and healthcare. How does stress affect the body? When the body experiences stress, levels of hormones adrenaline and cortisol rise. The heart rate follows suit, blood flow increases and digestion slows down -- all part of the fight-or-flight (or sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system) response preparing the body to address the source of stress.1 Hundreds of years ago, this function of the sympathetic nervous system was useful when you had to escape a serious physical threat but now, sources of stress, while in most cases not life-threatening, have the same physiological effect on the body and are worse overall because they don't let up. The chronic nature of modern-day anxiety may lead to increased levels of inflammation in the body.2 Disease states may subsequently ensue, beginning with lowered immunity and ultimately leaving an individual more susceptible to respiratory tract infections, slowed wound healing, autoimmune disease, obesity, and possibly even depression and heart disease, among other problems.3
In the interest of our own physical health, it's time to step away from post-election hysteria. Where does one begin? Going back to Lao-Tze's tenet, it starts with language: both what we tell ourselves and the words we use to communicate to others. Every self-help movement from Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking to the more recently Oprah-popularized The Secret have acclaimed the benefits of shifting our thoughts away from self-defeating, negative processes toward affirming, positive reflections. But is there science behind it? Indeed. A seminal study4 conducted more than two decades ago broke ground by establishing the connection between positive outlook and reported health. Since then, hundreds of papers have been written about the capacity of the mind-body connection to improve everything from pain tolerance to discomfort and fatigue during cancer recovery.
The takeaway? If your candidate lost and you're now bemoaning the future of the country, instead of allowing the stress to undermine your well-being, you can temper the effect by actually changing your thoughts and your words. The following, with apologies to Mitt Romney, is our own five-point plan to gain control of election anxiety and take hold of your health.
- Choose your words wisely. A positive outlook, and its attendant language, is an integral part of any attempt at assuaging post-Election Day unease. Research has indicated that the language we use may actually influence our visual perception of the world around us.5 And where does a shift toward optimism begin? Going back to our Lao-Tze quote: in our thoughts and in our words.
- Cut the cursing. Hold off on letting loose a barrage of your favorite expletives while lamenting the shifting shape of the political landscape. A recent study showed that swear words may actually stress the brain.6
- Don't take it all so seriously. Researchers conducted a small study that indicated that laughing has an immediate lowering effect on levels of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.7 Need to lighten it up in the wake of the election? Comedy Central's coverage might be your answer or forgo the news altogether in favor of your favorite comedy film.
- Switch off the thoughts. The constant barrage of political commentary too much? Meditate. Giving your mind and body a break from the constant stream of thoughts, words and worries is a powerful way to reduce tension.8 Give yourself five minutes a day to sit quietly and focus on the breath.
- When all else fails: pray. Numerous studies9 have suggested the benefit of prayer on lowering anxiety levels, so maybe it's worth a shot. And, hey, not only will you lower your anxiety, a few prayers for the next four years can't hurt.
1 Guyton and Hall. Textbook of Medical Physiology. Elsevier, 2006.
2 Cohen, et al. "Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation and disease risk." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Feb. 27, 2012.
3 Cohen S et al. "Psychological Stress and Disease." JAMA 2007; 298(14): 1685-1687.
4 Scheier, et al. "Optimism, coping and health: Assessment and implications of generalized outcome expectancies." Health Psychology, Vol 4(3), 1985, 219-247.
5 Gilbert, et al. "Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Jan. 31, 2006.
6 Wilkins, Alasdair. "How swear words actually stresses the brain." io9.com, July 31, 2011.
7 Berk, et al. "Neuroendocrine and stress hormone changes during mirthful laughter." Am J Med Sci. 1989 Dec;298(6):390-6.
8 Mohan, et al. "Effect of meditation on stress-induced changes in cognitive functions." J Altern Complement Med. 2011 Mar;17(3):207-12.
9 Koenig. "Religion, Spirituality, and Medicine: Research Findings and Implications for Clinical Practice." Southern Medical Journal. Volume 97, Number 12, December 2004.