If you’re feeling anxious, mindfulness might help you manage the stress.
The election is finally over. But it’s safe to say that, as a nation, the tensions and anxieties related to this historic race—and its outcome—aren’t going away anytime soon. While about half of the country is celebrating Donald Trump’s victory today, many others are facing feelings of disappointment.
If you’re in the latter group, you may be looking for ways to cope. Should you avoid the news, or wallow in it? Will you feel better by sharing your thoughts on social media, or worse?
Yes, it’s a cliché but you can start by taking a deep breath—literally—says Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. It won’t change the outcome of the race but that simple act has been scientifically proven to help curb anxiety and refocus your attention. That’s important, says Winston, because dwelling on negative emotions will only push you deeper into sadness and despair.
And since stress is an inevitable part of life no matter what your political persuasion, Winston says mindfulness is a skill everyone can benefit from learning. Here's a cheat sheet to help you feel calmer in no time.
1. Focus on your breath. Mindfulness is about living in the present moment with openness, curiosity, and willingness, says Winston. That concept may be hard to grasp right now, but you can start small—by bringing your attention to your breath for a few minutes, and tuning out everything else around you.
Try to practice mindful breathing for a minimum of five minutes a day, says Winston. (To get started, listen to a guided tutorial on UCLA’s website.) “Once you get used to it, you can do it anytime in the day you need it,” she adds—like when a political conversation gets heated, or you feel yourself getting overwhelmed by the news.
2. Tune into your whole body. If you end up in a heated conversation, notice what’s going on with your body in that moment: Feel your feet on the floor, your heart racing, and the heat rising in your cheeks, for example.
Acknowledge those feelings, but don’t let them take over. “If you notice there’s anxiety or anger there, then you can bring consciousness to it and not necessarily be so reactive when you choose to respond,” Winston says.
Pinpointing your emotion may even have a soothing effect in itself, she adds. “Research shows that when we are aware of feeling and we label it correctly, it calms down the primitive part of the brain, and activates the part that helps with impulse control instead.”
3. Maintain perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in thoughts about worst-case scenarios. But remind yourself that that’s exactly what they are—and that dwelling on them won’t change things or help you feel better.
“Mindfulness teaches us that we shouldn’t believe everything we think,” says Winston. “When a thought comes into your head—‘I have to leave the country,’ or ‘I’ll never talk to my relatives again’—you don’t have to follow that train of thought.” Instead, take a deep breath (see No. 1), bring yourself back to the present, and do your best to take things one step at a time.
4. Be proactive, not reactive. Practicing mindfulness doesn’t mean you should just sit back and give up on your beliefs and your passions. But it does mean you should think before making rash decisions while emotions are running high.
“Mindfulness can help you act for change, but from a place of wisdom and compassion rather than a place of reactivity—two very different ways of acting that can have completely different results,” says Winston. “When you practice it over time, you cultivate a quality of even-mindedness and balance, even amidst the ups and downs of life.”
5. Acknowledge your judgments. Mindfulness can be especially valuable when talking with others who have different opinions. (You may not feel up to doing that at all today, says Winston, and that’s okay. But doing so at some point, with mutual respect, will be an important step toward bridging the divides in our country.)
It’s only human—and totally normal—to form opinions about why a person feels the way they do. But you can acknowledge those judgments, in your head, without letting them go any farther. Remember, you don’t have to believe everything you think.
“Everyone wants the same thing deep down—to be safe, happy, and healthy,” she says. “So instead of writing someone off before really hearing them out, see if you can listen to these deeper needs and come to an understanding.”
6. Practice gratitude. “There is some neuroscience around the idea that people can’t have both fear and gratitude in their minds at the same time,” says Winston, “so doing some kind of gratitude practice right now can definitely be helpful.”
Call a loved one and tell them how much you appreciate them. Spend a few minutes writing down things you’re thankful for. Or just take the opportunity to bring awareness to the time you spend with your favorite people, places, or activities.
These strategies certainly won’t solve all of the country's challenges, nor will they erase your anger or anxieties. But that’s not the point of mindfulness—and that’s what makes it realistic.
“It’s not about trying to get rid of these feelings,” says Winston. “It’s about giving yourself tools so you can tolerate them and be at peace with them, so you can then move onward and upward.”