When Politics Drive Us Crazy

Kittens Are the Answer

By Melissa Hughes, PhD

Photo by Q'AILA on Unsplash

When you think of the potentially dangerous things you’re exposed to what comes to mind? Pollution? Gun violence? Artificial sweeteners? How about Thanksgiving? You know, that day set aside to feast on enough turkey to induce a food coma while trying to decide whether to engage in meaningful dialogue with your crazy Uncle Louie about his ridiculous political position (because “people like him are what’s wrong with this country!”) or bite your tongue until it’s bloody.

 In what has become standard pre-Thanksgiving study, there is no shortage of online advice as to how to politically engage/disengage with your adversarial relatives. Don’t believe me? Google “how to deal with politics at Thanksgiving” and you’ll get more than 31 million hits.


Despite the fact that our country is more divided than ever, most people will agree on one thing: Politics are exhausting.

Thanks to an all-you-can-eat social media feed and a 24-hour news cycle, we live in a perpetual cycle of outrage and moral defense that, more often than not, devolves into fruitless acrimony.  With Thanksgiving on the horizon and political shit-show of epic proportions (just this week!), I thought I’d share some news you can use.

A Lesson from the Brain

V0009729 A dissected brain. Drawing.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
A dissected brain. Drawing.
Published:  -Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
By https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/65/49/9811de328a2c80281a9a47b95526.jpgGallery: https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0009729.htmlWellcome Collection gallery (2018-03-21): https://wellcomecollection.org/works/habyr92g CC-BY-4.0, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36447783

According to a new study published last month at the University of Nebraska, we’re energy-depleted, sleep-deprived, and physically ill – all because of politics. The research, led by political scientist Kevin Smith, is the first to take a comprehensive look at the physical and emotional costs of paying attention to and participating in political discourse. The findings are bleak, and according to Smith, this is as close as it gets to a public health crisis. The numbers show an increase in chronic stress, physical ailments, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.

“Quite a few of the numbers jumped out at me,” Smith said. “Twenty percent have damaged friendships because of political disagreements. One in five report fatigue. And it’s a small (proportion), but 4% of the people in our sample said they’ve had suicidal thoughts because of politics. That translates into 10 million adults.”

Every day the news is filled with stories about crime, terrorism, violence, injustice, drug abuse and oppression. With 24/7 access on every device, it’s impossible to escape the negative news coverage completely. Have you ever wondered how all of that bad news affects your brain? Not your feelings – but how that literally affects your brain chemistry?

We can blame some of it on the media, but there is some neuroscience behind it, too. Recent studies maintain that heavy news-watchers experience higher anxiety, increased depression, learned helplessness, an overproduction of cortisol and greater activation in the survival brain.

There is good news, though. We are visual creatures and our brain is biased towards visual information. We can tell in a split second if the environment is safe (evoking happy/positive emotional responses) or dangerous (evoking more anger or fear-based emotional responses) by visual cues around us.  This is what has enabled us to evolve and survive extinction.

Research shows that certain images can make us happier, increase our resilience to stress and prime our brains for positive behaviors toward others like care, compassion, and empathy. A whole range of physical and emotional effects are triggered when we view warm fuzzy images of animals and babies. The brain’s pleasure center is activated, and a huge surge of the pleasure hormone, dopamine, is released. This surge decreases stress and aggression as it increases positive emotions and mood. In addition, a strong nurturing response kicks in and we experience a desire to protect rather than attack.

So, go ahead. Check out that cute kitten video. Your brain will thank you. And who knows… it might actually help you (and Uncle Louie) survive Thanksgiving this year. 

Melissa Hughes, PhD,  is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate.

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