Election stress? Try to disconnect

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It was during the second presidential debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump that Rabbi Benjamin Shalva became overwhelmed.

Trump had just threatened to jail Clinton over her use of a private email server if he became president.

“That scared me,” Shalva said. “I started to say, ‘I’ve never lived in a country like that.’ I started to feel the earth shift beneath my feet.”

At one point he could no longer process what Trump was saying, and so he turned off the debate.

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Rabbi Benjamin Shalva, a yoga instructor, said he had to turn off one of the presidential debates and do deep breathing to keep from feeling overwhelmed. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Benjamin Shalva
Rabbi Benjamin Shalva, a yoga instructor, said he had to turn off one of the presidential debates and do deep breathing to keep from feeling overwhelmed.
Photo courtesy of Rabbi Benjamin Shalva

“I just did some deep breathing,” he said. “I breathed in and out through my nose to let things calm down.”Shalva, a Reston resident and yoga instructor, didn’t return to the debate until the next day, and then he watched only highlights.

Year after year, when the American Psychological Association asks Americans what makes them stressed, the answer is always the economy. Last month, the APA came out with the results of its 2016 survey: 52 percent of adults reported feeling stressed about the election — Republicans and Democrats alike.

After more than a year of personal insults, leaked emails and relentless reporting and opining, Americans are frazzled. With days to go until the election, those interviewed for this story said the best thing that people can do to calm their nerves is to do what Shalva did: disconnect.

Take a walk, the APA suggested in its survey report. Spend time with family and friends. And avoid your Facebook feed.

“Whatever happens on Nov. 8, life will go on,” the APA said. “Avoid catastrophizing, and maintain a balanced perspective.”

“A new president means the captain of our ship is changing,” Shalva said. “I think any time we’re faced with change, either small change or larger change like an election, there’s going to be stress. Our brains are hard-wired to interpret change in our environment as stress.”

Shalva recommended that anyone feeling stress should find time for informal meditation. This can be done by turning off the phone and taking a walk or sitting and reflecting silently for five to 10 minutes.

Michal Bilick, who teaches meditation at Adas Israel Congregation’s Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington, said people tend to get “revved up” from the excitement of the presidential race, but that it is important to “calm down and center yourself.”

Caroline Vaile Wright, the APA’s director for research and special projects, said it isn’t necessary to stop following the news to alleviate election-related stress. Viewers should be selective, though.

“If you’re reading eight, 10, 12 articles [on the same subject], you’re not learning anything new necessarily, and you need to take a break,” she said.

Judaism has a built-in way to disconnect: Shabbat. The day of rest is an opportunity for Jews to pause and consider what is happening in their lives, said Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman of Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue.

Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman of Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue in Washington, says Shabbat offers Jews an opportunity to disengage from the week’s stressors, including political news. File photo
Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman of Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue in Washington, says Shabbat offers Jews an opportunity to disengage from the week’s stressors, including political news.
File photo

Friedman said keeping Shabbat can be difficult for her, but that she finds joy in being part of a community without the distractions of daily life.

Not only does Jewish tradition frown on the use of electronics during Shabbat and holidays, it also forbids any discussion of topics that may cause divisiveness or hostility, Friedman said. Including politics.

“Our speech on Shabbat is supposed to be different than our speech during the week,” she said. “Especially living in D.C., where people are so involved in politics, the most important guiding principle on Shabbat is not discussing things that would upset people.”

That is not to say politics can’t be discussed on Shabbat.

“Anything that generates positive energy, mutuality, seeing the other side of the person, that is all good conversation,” she said.

Is disconnecting a withdrawal from a real world that needs fixing? And by withdrawing, does it deprive the world of righteous anger against wrongs and needful fear against danger?

“It’s OK to be angry, but it’s important to figure out what you can do with that anger that’s positive in order to not detroy yourself or others,” said social worker Diane Bravmann.

As important as making the world a better place is doing one’s best to make healthy mental and physical choices, she said.

The way to reduce stress may be to keep the “life will go on” mantra in mind no matter who emerges victorious on Tuesday.

Shalva said that despite the anxiety and anger that campaign has caused, there are important lessons to be learned.

“In election campaigns, there’s a huge buildup, and then there’s Election Day, and then people return to business as usual,” he said. “If people feel stress and dread, what we should do on Nov. 9 is to reflect.”

Before that, people can act. Wright, of the APA, said that going to the polls and voting has “done wonders” in helping people manage their stress level; they feel as if they have unburdened themselves.

[email protected]atlanticmedia.com

Mathew Klickstein, a staff reporter for Baltimore Jewish Times, contributed to this article.

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