Letters From Esther #15: The Only Certainty Is Change

Esther Perel

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Shall We Begin?

We’re crawling to the finish line of a long election season while simultaneously reaching a record peak of Covid-19 cases in America. It’s a moment of deep division—of red and blue, black and white, rich and poor, mask and no mask. The pandemic has further laid bare how deeply social, racial, cultural, and economic differences impact how we live as well as how we die. There was a time, not long ago, when we said “we’re all in this together,” evidently, the stark reality is that “together” did not mean “equally.” It also didn’t mean “in agreement.” 

There is one topic, however, on which everyone can find some common ground: we are all very, deeply stressed out. In July, The American Psychological Association’s monthly pulse check* of American’s stress levels found that “most adults from both parties say the current amount of uncertainty in our nation causes them stress (76% Democrats, 67% Republicans).” Furthermore, widespread Covid-19 specific stress is so prevalent, a team of researchers has already developed and validated “the COVID Stress Scales, comprising 36 items on 5 scales” to better understand and assess pandemic-related distress.**

Stress, it seems, is the United States’ uniting factor at present—and it’s compounded by trauma, as the ACE Study demonstrates.Stress is a byproduct of change, and change challenges our illusion of control. Months of prolonged uncertainty, death, grief, revolution, dislocation, job loss, homeschooling, and loneliness would have been enough to make that so, but the political climate has upped American’s stress levels regardless of party affiliation.** The APA’s study found that 77% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans cite the current political climate as a significant source of stress in their life. 

*The goal around stress now is twofold: regulation and maintenance. We must regulate our stress for the sake of our health (and that of our loved ones who feel its effects). But we also must maintain our stress. These are difficult times. It’s rational and justified to be stressed in response to the events of this year, and we will continue to be in situations that incite stress for the foreseeable future. Regulation of stress is about radical self-care. Maintenance of stress is about putting that stress to good use for the causes that matter most to us without burning out. *

One major complicating factor is that healthy regulation and maintenance of our stress requires boundary-setting. And that’s difficult to do when calcification around party lines has entered our homes. It can feel near-impossible to reconcile our joy for how dad plays with the kids with our dread over the guns he has in his basement. We know our in-laws love us just as much as we know they would never forgive us if they found out we terminated our pregnancy. We want to congratulate our friend on the birth of her child, but we can’t get over the social media post she made about the pandemic being a hoax. 

A part of us wants to engage, to try to have peaceful, low-stress dialogue instead of a conversation characterized by mistrust, judgement, incredulity, even rage. But we wonder: How can they hold such views and be so unbending, especially when they threaten everything we value most? Don’t they know better? What’s wrong with them? Don’t be mistaken; they feel exactly the same way about us. 

I know this scenario well. Growing up, I spent many nights in political screaming matches with my parents and they rarely led to a less stressful evening. And this is a common dynamic I see when families come to my office struggling with affective polarization. When we are polarized, we tend to see ourselves and our views as a rainbow of colors while we see the other and their views in black and white. We attribute complexity to our own arguments while simplifying theirs. We are quick to load up the other with all kinds of negative attributions. And they are quick to reciprocate. 

Right now, we’re not likely to change each other's minds. All we can do is manage ourselves. We will all need a lot of mental agility, greater than what’s already been necessary, to regulate and maintain our stress levels in the coming days, weeks, and months. 

Let’s Turn the Lens on You

Help Regulate Your Stress

  • Check your perception. According to “The Perception Gap” study, “Americans have a deeply distorted understanding of each other… Overall, Democrats and Republicans imagine almost twice as many of their political opponents as reality hold views they consider “extreme.” When you see an opening, keep the dialogue and counter the dehumanization of the other. 
  • Take a social media break. “More in Common,” the collective behind “The Perception Gap” study, credits social media as part of the reason we have difficulty connecting with people outside of our bubbles.
  • Get Grounded. Close your eyes and tune in to where your body touches the ground. Acknowledge the solid, stable earth beneath you. Allow yourself to feel supported. Breathe.
  • Beyond breathing practices; do deep body exercises. Try self-soothing with self-touch.
  • Do a walk and talk. Calling a friend while on a long walk allows two people to be in their own worlds and together. In our socially distanced times, this movement is good for our bodies and our friendships.
  • Set Boundaries. There is no need to compromise our psychological or physical health and safety for people who will not respect our boundaries, especially now. Lay out your rules and stick to them. You are allowed to step away from a relationship. If they’re a real friend, they’ll understand.
  • Cultivate Hope. As Kathleen M. Pike, PhD notes, “Hope impacts virtually all dimensions of life, including academic outcomes, athletic performance, health prognosis, and resilience.”

More From Esther

What Death Can Teach Us About Life / a recent newsletter and workshop
In October’s newsletter and workshop, we explored how talking about death is really talking about life—hopes, fears, uncertainty, imagination, legacy, connection, responsibility, love. 

What Is This Feeling? Anticipatory Grief and Other Pandemic-Related Emotions / a recent blog 
The pandemic has left us with a set of unfamiliar emotions. Read more to learn about the new emotions you may be experiencing and what to do about them.

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