How do you navigate difficult political discussions with the people you’re closest to in the weeks leading up to this year’s presidential election? Experts say it isn’t always easy. Tom Werner/Getty Images
  • Election season can cause immense stress for many people.
  • In today’s charged atmosphere, it can be especially difficult to manage political disputes when they happen with family and friends.
  • Rather than engage in heated debates, experts say it might be best to just let it rest and move on for your own mental health and theirs.
  • When disputes become particularly heated, they can sometimes cause irreparable damage to relationships.

We’re now less than a month away from the 2020 general election and it’s almost impossible to avoid talk of politics. From television ads to social media discussions to constant phone push notifications, politics are everywhere we turn.

Given the charged nature of political discourse, it’s well documented that election seasons can cause immense stress.

This election is already a particularly anxiety-inducing one for many and the COVID-19 pandemic is only adding to the strain it’s having on our mental health.

In today’s charged atmosphere, it can be especially difficult to manage political disputes when they’re taking place at the dinner table with family, on Facebook with friends, and while sitting in your living room with the housemates you’re currently sheltering in place with.

How do you navigate these difficult political discussions with the people you’re closest to in the weeks leading up to this year’s presidential election?

Experts say it isn’t always easy.

Getting caught in the “political vortex”

Curtis William Reisinger, PhD, a psychologist and head of Northwell Health’s Employee and Family Assistance Program, said it’s hard to avoid getting sucked into the “political vortex” this year.

He told Healthline that especially at a family dinner or reunion — where people with a range of political views might be closely gathered around an enclosed space — it’s hard to avoid fireworks from going off.

In these instances, he said there tends to be several different types of individuals — those who will sit back quietly and observe, those who might try to moderate the conversation one way or the other, and those who might get a perverse joy out of sitting back and “watching the fireworks.”

Reisinger said one way to diffuse this kind of heated political discussion is to approach it the way you might a dispute between children.

Try to switch the topic and move to a more neutral topic. The old “what do you think of the weather today?” technique is sometimes the best approach, he joked.

Another tactic — and this depends on how passionate you are about the given topic and whether you can refrain from getting heated, yourself — is to say, “Can you tell me a little bit more about what gets you to that belief?”

Reisinger said this interview-like approach can be a way to civilly get the other person to voice how they got to a certain opinion and try to engage them without fighting.

“No matter your beliefs, do your best to respect the other person — it’s better to do that,” he added. “Don’t have liquor flowing. Some people drink because it relaxes them, but for other people, it can make them agitated and irritable.”

If you’re the host of a group gathering where politics might inevitably rear its ugly head, he said to try to limit alcohol intake and make sure people have snacks to munch on, ideally some carbs to sedate people and slow them down a bit.

De-escalating conflict

Andrew E. Roffman, LCSW, director of the Family Studies Program and clinical assistant professor at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone, said that it all comes down to “the local level.”

We live in a time defined by political incivility nationally, but he said the only way to repair that strain in this country is to focus relationship-to-relationship on those in our actual lives.

“Listen to one another, don’t shout each other down or talk over each other, persuade each other to see each other still as human beings, to still be willing to hear what the other person has to say, to say ‘I’m here to listen, to understand, not here to try to persuade or dissuade you,’” Roffman said of the mindset we should adopt when entering these discussions.

Of course, it can feel nearly impossible to maintain that even-keeled tone when arguing politics with people you know and love.

“It’s hard on families, obviously. Say it’s a liberal person and your parents are very conservative, well, that is going to be difficult for you to be at the dinner table and talk about an issue that you feel strongly opposed to. It’s hard not to say, ‘How can you believe that, how can you think that?’” Roffman told Healthline.

“As soon as you start to do that, nobody is going to listen,” he added.

Not only will no one listen, but he added that these kinds of disputes can cause irreparable damage to relationships.

Roffman echoed Reisinger in saying that the ideal situation would be to come from a place of trying to meet the other person where they are, to ask them how they came to their opinions and views, and respectfully listen.

Of course that’s the “ideal” — not always the reality.

He added that you could change the topic, or you could simply end the conversation and walk away if it’s getting too heated.

“You can always say, ‘You know, I don’t think this is something I want to talk about with you right now. It’s something I’m having a hard time with. I’m sorry it’s hard for you. It’s something you feel very strongly about. I’m not going to have this talk right now,’” he explained.

That “taking the high road” approach could be a mature, easy way to agree to disagree and move on before the conversation goes in a downward spiral.

Roffman added that in these moments you have to also level with yourself: The odds are unlikely you’re going to change someone’s mind over a fight at the family dinner table or over a phone call with a friend.

It might be best to just let it rest and move on for your own mental health as well as theirs.

Reisinger said it could also be helpful to put a time out on the conversation. Put it on pause. It could be helpful to just suggest it’s something you want to address “after the election,” when the issue is no longer something that’s in the heat of the moment for everyone involved.

It’s not always worth having these arguments and stressing that they happen then and there because they could lead to serious physical health outcomes.

If an argument escalates, it could lead to verbal or physical violence, or it could trigger a heart attack for someone with heart disease.

“You really have to be mindful and conscientious about other people’s limitations and frailty and, again, if you are family members, weighing the importance of preserving family unity,” Reisinger added.

Political stress and COVID-19

While stress surrounding politics is nothing new, it’s obvious that this year is very different.

Already, economic struggles and political upheaval has been documented to cause more stress among Americans today than in the 1990s, for instance.

On top of that, 2020 has seen an unprecedented global pandemic that has resulted in millions sick and more than 200,000 dead in this country alone.

Exacerbating all of this is the fact that public health has been infused with politics.

President Donald Trump initially called COVID-19 a hoax earlier this year. Flash forward to early October, and the president was diagnosed with the virus himself.

With local lockdowns closing workplaces and forcing people to shelter at home with loved ones, partners, friends, and housemates, it has also put these political fights front and center.

People have been forced to juggle childcare, working at home, and daily household chores in close quarters with others for months on end as tensions over politics run high.

How do you deal with these political fights while sheltering at home?

“I don’t know how most people do it. A lot of people are doing the best they can to manage the stress of all these things,” Roffman said. “I would say in families, I would encourage parents to aspire to be the cooler heads to not feel like they need to — and I don’t have an easy answer — recommend people to have ‘a deep breath moment.’”

“We’re all living with so much uncertainty, so much anxiety. We have to have those kinds of moments where we maybe hit the reset button, metaphorically and literally, take a deep breath, reorient ourselves and some of the tension we have building up,” he added.

If you’ve just had a heated exchange with someone you’re sheltering with, Reisinger said take a deep breath.

Heated discussions can activate cortisol and adrenaline in your body, causing your heart rate to accelerate.

He said it’s crucial to pay attention to your body’s own physiological warnings. If you’re on some sort of anti-anxiety medication, consult with your physician about the best approach to take. If you need to step outside and physically leave the space the argument took place in, do that.

Managing social media

Beyond the dinner table and the people you’ve been sheltering with, it can also be easy to fall prey to unending social media battles over politics.

We’ve all seen or maybe participated in them — those endless Facebook and Twitter back-and-forths about politics and current events.

Roffman said that you should keep in mind the old carpenter’s adage, “measure twice, cut once.”

Before you fire off a response to someone on social media, give yourself a moment. Perhaps write your initial response in a separate document on your computer, get it out of your system, walk away from it, and then revisit it.

“Be a good editor, take out anything inflammatory, think about what you actually want to say, and think about how it is going to be received,” he added. “Essentially, bring the emotional temperature down before you respond. Then, maybe the back and forth will be more dialogic.”

He said he understands this is easier said than done.

Especially with many people out of work or holed up inside, social media can be an easy outlet and escape. It’s hard not to doomscroll and let yourself get negatively impacted by social media.

“When the issues are hot button issues, I think it tricks our nervous system into this mode where we are ‘in a crisis’ and have to be on high alert all the time, which is the worst possible mode to be operating from unless you are truly in an emergency situation,” Roffman said.

Again, he stressed that you should keep in mind how important it is to listen, hear another viewpoint, and then step away if need be, whether in person or on social media.

Reisinger suggested that it can be as easy as just logging off and putting your phone or computer away for a while.

If a discussion online is distressing you, just shut it down and step away from the device.

“Maybe go visit a happy YouTube feed, or something. A lot of this is about shifting your attention, shifting the content [that’s] in your consciousness right now, that is getting you irritated and shifting focus,” he said.

Political differences won’t end with this election. Politics and policy are part of our daily existences — whether we want them to be or not — informing much of how we live our lives.

With this in mind, Roffman said to keep in perspective that we’re all individuals with our own opinions, and we might have to sometimes practice something we rarely see from our current political leaders: empathy.

“Resist the urge to demonize people,” he said. “As soon as we turn people into these objects of our vilification, we stop treating them as human beings. It just makes it a lot harder for us to heal relationships when we do that.”

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