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Feeling stressed by the election? Mindfulness can help

Mindfulness has been lauded as an effective meditation practice to bring people into the present moment.
Mindfulness has been lauded as an effective meditation practice to bring people into the present moment.
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If this election season has got you feeling a little stressed out, you're not alone.

Earlier this month, a survey released by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that more than half of American adults are feeling "very" or "somewhat" stressed by the election.

To help reduce election stress, the APA recommends limiting media consumption, avoiding discussions about the election, and maintaining "a balanced perspective" about what will happen after November 8. 

But how to keep a balanced perspective when our minds so often leap ahead to the worst-case scenario? One way may be to practice a little mindfulness.

Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center, explains how mindfulness can help reduce election-related stress.

Interview highlights:

What is it that's so stress-inducing about the election?

There seems to be just a general feeling of anxiety that people have. There's so much uncertainty, and then there's also all this anger and hatred. It's confusing, people feel overwhelmed. I think it's just a combination of so many factors coming together that we're all stressed out.

What is mindfulness?

I define mindfulness as paying attention to our present-moment experiences with openness and curiosity and a willingness to be with what is. It's really about how can we live in the present moment— not lost in the past, not lost in the future— but right here right now. That's what mindfulness can teach us to do.

It's so easy though to skip ahead in your mind and end up in a stress spiral about all the possibilities ahead. How do you not do that?

That's exactly what the human mind does. We think of one thing and it leads to the next and it's like a snowball effect. But what we can learn to do with mindfulness is actually to become aware of our mind. And when we notice that our mind has gone off into the worst-case scenario, you can come back to the present moment and actually find a place of peace inside yourself.

What are some tips if you're completely new to mindfulness meditation?

The simplest way to do it is to focus on your breathing. That's something that everybody can have access to. We can just take a moment to feel our breath in our body, and what we would do in a meditation practice is just notice breath after breath— maybe in your stomach or chest or nose— and then when your attention wanders, you bring it back to the sensations of your breath. And then you just keep practicing it. It may be hard to do in the beginning, but over time it gets easier to stay in the present moment.

How does mindfulness help reduce stress?

The science shows that just doing a practice such as meditation— and it can be mindfulness, there are many types of meditation and mindfulness is one of them— it has a calming effect on the nervous system, it can boost the immune system, it can reduce stress-related responses. So just in and of itself it's a very helpful practice for reducing stress. But the second level is how it can help us work with difficult thoughts and emotions so when we go into the worst-case scenario or to feelings of fear or anxiety, we can check into our bodies and notice what's happening in the moment and not get so caught in it. Instead, we can actually have a little bit of space, a little bit of distance, so that we're not overwhelmed by these emotions.

What about the stress that comes along with conflict with friends or family members about the election. Can mindfulness help with that as well? 

It can, but you have to practice it. So my suggestion is to start a meditation practice, so you begin to have some basic tools. On our UCLA website, we have some free guided meditations you can download. But when you're in a heated conversation, in the middle of it, you can actually just take a mindful breath. Feel your feet on the floor, notice that your heart is racing, notice that you're having a strong feeling of irritation, and that you don't have to act on it. You can just be aware of it without letting it take over you.

Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

To hear the full interview, click the blue player above.