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November Elections: A Nation of Compassion Fatigue

What our fellow Americans are feeling about politics, how stress affects our decision to vote, and how we can reconnect and heal together

My friend plopped down in front of me in the crowded coffee shop with an audible sigh. Obvious worry and anxiety cloaked her face. “I think I’m going to have to take a social media hiatus until elections are over,” she huffed as she unwrapped her scarf from around her neck, “Are you going to vote? Of course, you are! Who are you going to vote for? Ugh there is so much pressure with the elections this year and my newsfeed is overrun with political ads and memes! I just can’t take it! I don’t know if I can even handle voting this year.” I sipped my coffee just staring at her over my cup. I didn’t even bother telling her I voted early and let her continue to vent out her anxieties and frustrations with America’s current political seasons. She wasn’t the only one feeling the pressure. Even myself felt a lump in my throat, my heart began racing, and my hands started shaking as I checked the boxes of my ballot. “Did I make the right choice? Did I choose to believe in the right people? Did they truly care about the wellbeing of their countrymen or were they vested in their own self-gain and personal career progression? Was my singular vote going to send my country into complete turmoil?” I knew I wasn’t the only having these same thoughts as I engaged in my civic duty.

Infact, in the 2016 Harris Poll surveys related to stress, 63% of Americans cited the future of our nation as being their number one stressor just two years ago this month. The American Psychological Association released their research in October of this year stating that 55% of 18 to 21 year-olds cited the current political climate as a source of stress and 68% cited our nation’s future as a worry clogging their minds, while 54% of those same individuals stated that they do not intend to vote this month. You can’t argue with that evidence! No alternative facts here! America has been struggling to engage and feel connected to each other and their governance for years now. You see it everywhere you go. You hear it from your loved ones, collogues, and even new acquaintances. People questioning each other’s motives and actions, distrust in people politically attuned different from themselves, drawing lines in the sand, “If you don’t care about the same issues I care about, if you don’t vote the way I vote, then we can no longer be friends.” We’ve been hearing the same record on repeat for the past two years, “I had to delete another one of my Facebook friends because she was getting crazy with her political rants. Doesn’t she see how her way of thinking is ruining this country and all the progress we’ve made? She is part of the problem.” Our diversity in opinion, but willingness to come together as one nation is what makes Americans, well American. You can think differently from your neighbor, your co-worker, or even your best friend and still find ways to cherish each other. Now, this script we hear on repeat seems to have turned our diversity in thought into a weapon of divisiveness. “A nation divided” is our new media outlet catchphrase.

If so many of us are stressed out about the same things, are we really as divided as it may appear on the outside? “I can’t care anymore. I need to just turn off and get away from it all. It’s too much.” My friend finished her long-winded political rant. Ah, there it was; compassion fatigue. A friend to many of us by now without us even knowing it. A nation experiencing compassion fatigue from a system designed to allow us to express our social liberties and freedoms. Now one of our greatest sources of daily stress and anxiety.

What is compassion fatigue? Compassion fatigue is the result of being exposed to trauma or high amounts of stress on a frequent and reoccurring basis without healthy mental intervention. Compassion fatigue is characterized by an individual feeling mentally exhausted, a sense of hopelessness, persistent negative attitude or feelings, and a lack of empathy. Empathy is what allows us to connect with others that are different from us. It allows us to explore an alternative perspective or experience in life with an open and caring mindset. When we shut down, we remove our ability to connect with one another. Could we experience compassion fatigue on a national level? Absolutely! We see it when specific areas experience a natural disaster. So many people are affected by the trauma of the event itself and it may take a community years to rebuild. Compassion fatigue can set in because the tasks involved in healing can feel overwhelming and endless. In 2016, when the votes came through and the President of the United States was determined not in the outcome that was predicted, our nation was spinning. Riots broke out across cities, violence ensued, intolerance blared on every TV station in a constant loop of negativity and national doom. Friend began turning on friend, neighbor began turning on neighbor, and feelings of fear, sadness, disbelief, and despair went through the roof on a national level. We traumatized each other. We hurt each other deeply. The violence may have subsided and great movements fighting towards inclusion and love grew with more and more Americans engaging in protests for what they believe in, however, the stress never went away. We’ve been in a haze of it for a while now. Two years of stress. Two years of anxiety. It takes its toll. Try not to add even more anxiety to your already full plate about our nation’s future with all of this information for all hope is not lost. Infact, the exact opposite!

How do we heal? Connection. Connection is the answer. We reconnect in tolerance, empathy, and acknowledgement of our shared humanity! Many of us already are in one way or another. Back in 2016, half of the Americans who reported the future of our nation as being their biggest life stressor also said that the current political climate inspired them to volunteer, become active, and engage in the causes they believe in according to the 2017 Harris Poll report. And in the American Psychological Associations report for 18 to 21 year-olds, about 60% of those surveyed stated that they acted upon their political views in other ways even if they are choosing not to vote. The funny thing about freedom is that you also get the freedom to choose not to engage or determine how you engage. Those statistics would lead us to believe that hundreds of thousands of Americans are reconnecting and connecting every day, even if they aren’t meeting in solidarity at the polls in the coming weeks. And THAT is pretty awesome! So, how do we bring the other half of the nation with us in our connection movement? How do we reconnect across the divide and lead our nation’s future into one of empathy and prosperity?

How do we battle compassion fatigue?

  1. Be Curious. When we approach differences and problems from a place of curiosity, we remove the opportunity for critical judgment. Become obsessed with exploring another person’s difference of opinion from an honest and genuine place. You may find that you actually care about similar social issues, but are in a difference of opinion on how to solve it. There are many paths up a mountain. If we all took the same path, life would be boring.

  1. Re-connect. I don’t mean online, I mean with each other. Reach across the divide and find a piece of humanity to connect with in conversation rather than a political opinion. There are so many amazing people doing amazing things. Connect with those that are passionate and driven about living life joyously, kindly, and with laughter. Laughter’s infectious, as are kindness and joy. Be a part of a movement towards connection.

  1. Laugh (A LOT). Did I say laughter? I mean laughter! Laughing is an instant dopamine dump in your brain (that feel good hormone associated with moments of extreme joy!). It’s an instant stress reliever for a stressed-out mind. Reconnect with your soul and feel alive again through laughter. You could even do a little Laughter Yoga (Yes-it’s real!). Maybe introduce it at your next family holiday when politics come up or after the weekly business meeting nobody wants to attend. Don’t knock it before you try it! It truly is life changing!

  1. Grow Together. Know you’re not alone. Even those on the opposite side of the political table from you are feeling the pressure and stress that you are. Venting can feel healthy, but sometimes we can become unhealthy in our release by finding others that are in the same situation and finding solidarity in our pain. We can grieve together, but we must also grow and lift each other up. We don’t want to inadvertently keep each other down by living in a negative headspace. Find community events to attend and show support by showing up. Get extra involved by pulling together a volunteer group to benefit a local organization.

  1. Self-care. Refill your empty, dry, and cracked inner wellspring. This isn’t about checking out, it’s about checking in. Check in with yourself and your mental health. Is there an activity that no matter how many times you engage in it, it brings you joy every time? Find space for that one thing for even just five minutes in the next week. And if that feels too overwhelming, then start with the things you already do. Maybe spend your commute to work people watching. I guarantee you someone is doing something strange in the car next to you while everyone is stuck bumper to bumper that will make you laugh. Spend your traffic jam looking around and noticing something new about the route you travel daily instead of stewing in the anxiety of being late for the 567th time over something you have no control over. Because traffic is like the weather, it’s completely unpredictable. Or maybe instead of rushing to get that morning coffee and then chugging it before that first morning meeting, you take five seconds while in the elevator to look at your drink and say, “Hey, I took care of myself today. I bought myself my favorite morning brew. Go me!” then take a sip and try to tell me it didn’t taste just a little bit better. Self-care isn’t hard to do and you’re already doing it. Take some time to acknowledge it and engage in what you’re doing fully.  

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