You probably know people — maybe including yourself — who are panicked about the midterm elections Tuesday. They post and repost lots of partisan content, argue with people on social media and generally are edgy and defensive. You also probably know people — maybe including yourself — who are totally unwilling to engage with the midterms. They refuse to read or watch anything about them, complain about people who bring them up and are similarly edgy and defensive.
Doomsharing or oversharing — even when the information is true — can be contagious, in turn affecting how others share. Stressed-out people, in other words, stress people out.
These might seem like opposite responses. But in my college classrooms, where I teach courses focused on politics, public debate and controversy — including a course this fall titled simply the 2022 Midterms — what I have found is that political panic and political aversion often have a key thing in common: high levels of anxiety.
The anxiety then gets expressed in different ways — as aggression, running away or shutting down. Evolutionary biology describes these behaviors as fighting, fleeing or freezing, adaptive responses to threats that are designed to keep us safe.
What political aggression looks like is self-explanatory, and it tends to be the thing people focus on in assessing what’s wrong with our politics. But the impulse to either vanish or clam up is equally significant and, in my classroom experience, even more common. This takes the form of actively rejecting anything political and immersing oneself instead in fun TikTok videos. Or of seeing stressful conversations in their social feeds, worrying about the consequences of engaging and then doing nothing.
Reflecting national trends, since 2015 I have seen a sharp rise in overall levels of student anxiety, with worry about politics front and center in my classes. What has spiked most significantly in response is an avoidant attitude toward politics. (Avoidance isn’t the same thing as apathy, which is characterized by lack of interest.) For these students, politics are too confusing, too upsetting and too stressful. Convincing them that it’s still worth engaging gets tougher for me each year.
It is, of course, a free country; people don’t have to care about politics, and they don’t have to participate. But we have a real problem when high levels of stress and anxiety become a driving factor in our politics, something that sends people screaming for the hills or screaming at one another. We therefore need to think beyond the politics of politics and also ask how people are doing. The answer doesn’t just influence political action (and inaction). It influences the kinds of political conversations that are even possible.
For many people, the short answer to the question “how are you doing?” is “not that well.” Covid, of course, triggered significant spikes in anxiety and depression. Reflecting that trend, an advisory panel of medical experts appointed by the Department of Health and Human Services recently recommended routine anxiety screenings for all adults under 65.
But much of the psychological distress preceded Covid, and it has persisted long after lockdowns ended. For many, structural injustices may play a role. Racism and prejudice, for example, have profound effects on mental and physical well-being, as do poverty, economic insecurity and growing income inequality.
Distressing media is another possible culprit. The correlation between social media use and negative mental health outcomes has been explored in countless studies, including those conducted by the social networking platforms themselves. But the effect of reactive partisan media that sends the nonstop message that “you should be very afraid and angry” is also worth considering.
Whatever the cause of people’s distress, it has individual and collective effects, both of which are bad for democracy.
Individually, when we are stressed out and anxious, we shift into the “downstairs brain,” a term introduced by neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel and psychotherapist Tina Payne Bryson. In downstairs brain mode (i.e., when our survival instincts compel us to fight, flee or freeze), we lose key cognitive functions like impulse control, empathy, the ability to soothe our fears and the capacity to distinguish real threats from imagined ones.
All of this feels terrible — but in addition, research suggests that the more anxious and overwhelmed we are, the more likely we are to share false information on social media; once we shift into downstairs brain mode, we’re less able to process information or reflect on what the consequences of our sharing might be. There’s even evidence suggesting a connection between depression and belief in conspiracy theories. The theory is that a depressed person is more likely to see the world through “dark-colored glasses,” feel threatened in response and, once in downstairs mode, have fewer resources available to parse true threats from illusory ones.
On social media, such individual experiences can have significant collective consequences, too. In a forthcoming digital ethics guide for middle-grade readers, my co-author and I discuss how reactive doomsharing or oversharing — even when the information is true — can be contagious, in turn affecting how others share. Stressed-out people, in other words, stress people out.
Conversations with my students over the years have highlighted how these cycles of reactivity can affect democratic participation. When the students I’ve worked with exist in chronic flee or freeze mode, they tend to be much less inclined to participate politically, including having the bandwidth to vote.
When they regularly rocket into fight mode, they admit (often sheepishly) that their downstairs brain undercuts critical skills for having productive political discussions — particularly the ability to attune to others’ experiences and see where they’re coming from. At more extreme levels, people consumed by anger and fear lose the ability to see different others as human.
Research suggests that the more anxious and overwhelmed we are, the more likely we are to share false information on social media.
To try to counter fight, flee and freeze responses in my classes, I make sure students understand what happens in their bodies when they shift to the downstairs brain. As Siegel and Payne Bryson explain, doing so is key; you have to “name it to tame it.” If your inner life is a mystery to you, you won’t be able to effectively intervene.
Offering people tools for shifting out of the downstairs brain through breathing techniques, mindfulness-based stress reduction practices and other forms of body awareness can help improve how they’re feeling and, in turn, help make them less likely to contribute to cycles of reactivity. Of course, while that can help people cope with political debate, it isn’t going to address the structural causes that can push someone into distress in the first place. Mindfulness can accomplish only so much.
What these strategies can do, however, is help people regain the perspective they lose when they shift into downstairs brain mode. Only by doing that can we begin to understand just how enormous our political problems are and just how tightly our personal challenges are tangled up with structural forces. If we can’t name those truths, we’ll never be able to start taming them. And to truly protect and preserve our democracy, we must. That process begins, but most certainly does not end, with taking a few slow deep breaths.