Coping with political upheaval and spiritual malaise

UP IN SMOKE: Local Rabbi Wolff Alterman says even his doctor agrees that a pleasant cigar enjoyed beside the French Broad River every couple of weeks is better for his health than getting stuck in a state of stress and anxiety. Alterman urges spending time in nature, tapping into one's sense of humor and reflecting on the inevitability of change as effective coping strategies. Photo by Leslie Boyd

Nothing about politics seems normal these days.

Whether it’s local issues such as gentrification and overdevelopment or, at the national level, things like health care, the Green New Deal and military spending, the conversations have gotten toxic.

Name-calling, disinformation and concerns about foreign interference loom large. Often, we’re left feeling powerless to combat the toxic atmosphere and wondering whether our votes will even count.

As the presidential election inches closer, voters are left trying to make sense of an increasingly loud and nasty campaign. No matter which side of the political divide we land on, the resulting stress takes a toll on mind and body alike — and the more prolonged it is, the worse the effects.

What to do?

“I find a sense of humor helps,” says local Rabbi Wolff Alterman, “and the more absurd, the better.” Alterman tells people he supports Vermin Supreme, a comedic candidate for president who says if he’s elected, every American will get a pony. “What are you going to do with your pony?” Alterman asks with a mischievous grin.

Humor, he says, can help deflect animosity. When people can laugh together, they have found common ground.

Film star Robert De Niro likens today’s political climate to being in an abusive relationship: the anger, the seemingly endless vitriol and the unwillingness to listen to any other point of view.

“It’s like living in an abusive household,” he said during an interview with Stephen Colbert last month. “You feel you don’t know what crazy thing is going to happen next, what’s going to make you say, ‘What the hell’s going on?’”

A recent study found that a large number of Americans believe their physical health has been harmed by their exposure to politics. An even larger number say that politics has resulted in emotional costs and lost friendships.

“The best thing people can do in this atmosphere is self-care,” counsels Asheville therapist Meg Hudson.

How much self-care people need and how deeply they’re affected by the discord in politics, she says, depend somewhat on their innate ability to bounce back — their resilience. Some people are just born with more of that than others.

Stress causes the release of adrenaline and cortisol, hormones that activate the fight-or-flight response. Sustained stress, she notes, can cause heart palpitations, increased blood pressure, atherosclerosis, weight gain and insomnia, none of which is compatible with a long, healthy life.

“We’re in this state of fear, with the perceived inability to do anything about it, and we tend to give up — and we suffer depression and anxiety,” Hudson explains.

Political activists, in particular, can feel trapped in a reality they may find frightening.

Just walk away

Black Mountain resident Valerie Hartshorn, the mother of three young sons, helped establish the group Indivisible Black Mountain. Since then, she’s been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder.

“For me, self-care means I spend less time on the computer, and I’m careful to monitor my information intake so as not to overload,” says Hartshorn. “I limit my time on social media, because it tends to derail me from doing the work.”

In the same spirit, she refuses to get into arguments online, instead simply closing her browser and walking away. “You never settle anything that way, but you do get upset,” she maintains. “It’s not worth it.”

Hartshorn knows there are various issues that concern her, but she also understands that she can’t work on all of them.

“I say we need to pick our top three issues and then narrow our focus onto one,” she continues. “We can be the go-to person for one issue while we stand with others who are the go-to people on other important issues, and nobody gets spread too thin. … Learn how to build coalitions, and learn when it’s appropriate to follow rather than to lead.”

Brenda Murphree is a leader in Indivisible Ashevilleand she, too, experiences stress.

“I should probably get to the gym more,” she concedes. “But when I feel overwhelmed, I get the dog and take a long walk. I take a full half-hour. Being outdoors, walking beside the stream, it helps.”

Murphree also finds that she does better reading the news than watching it on television. And when she finds herself thinking that she can’t make a difference, she seeks out other activists for reassurance that she’s never working alone.

“I’m a bit of an introvert,” Murphree reveals. “It’s not easy for me to go knocking on doors to register voters and talk to people about the issues. In fact, it’s draining.”

Do unto others…

Pastoral counselor Russell Siler Jones believes there are myriad approaches to coping with these toxic political times.

“Some people are wired to be more sympathetic and sensitive than others,” he says. “It’s a gift of emotional empathy. Then there are people who have the gift of being able to compartmentalize — and there is no moral superiority to one or the other.”

Siler Jones, who wrote Spirit in Session: Working With Your Client’s Spirituality (and Your Own) in Psychotherapy, advises folks who are struggling to first acknowledge that the toxic political atmosphere bothers them. “It does make sense that we are affected by this,” he says.

What’s more, it isn’t easy to see things from the other person’s point of view. That’s probably why every major religion has some form of the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

“There’s a reason it doesn’t tell us to do unto others before they do to you,” he points out. Abiding by the golden rule “is not just good for the recipient: There are benefits to the giver as well.”

As a young man, Siler Jones says he worked on an archaeological dig with a very diverse group of people. “It was hard, physical work in the hot sun,” he recalls. “And we found our differences increasingly irrelevant as we worked together.”

This led him to believe that before any two nations go to war, their leaders should be forced to spend time together doing hard physical labor.

“Look, it’s healthy when injustice makes you mad,” he says. “But the world benefits when we deal with it in nondestructive ways.”

For Alterman, that means getting out to sit by the French Broad River and enjoy an occasional cigar or, in warmer weather, jumping into a kayak and paddling for an hour or two.

“Yeah, the cigar isn’t good for me, but one every couple of weeks is less harmful than the effects of stress,” he says. “My doctor even agrees with me.”

Nature, says Alterman, soothes him more than anything else. He thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail 25 years ago, and he still gets together with friends for all-day or weekendlong hikes.

“I turn off my phone and I don’t turn it back on until I come back. It isn’t about getting away: It’s about getting in and reconnecting with myself.”

It’s also important, notes Alterman, to remind ourselves that humanity has survived worse than what’s happening in politics now.

“Things don’t stay good forever, but they don’t stay bad forever, either,” he emphasizes. “Mark Twain once said, ‘For those of you inclined to worry, you have the widest selection in history.’ Well, more than a century later, that’s still true.”

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