A step-by-step guide to staying calm during the presidential debate, according to meditation and mental health experts

Andrea Michelson
·6 min read
Joe Biden Donald Trump debate
Joe Biden and Donald Trump speak during the first presidential debate at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio on September 29, 2020. JIM WATSON,SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Image
  • Watching the presidential and vice-presidential debates might be extra stress-inducing this election season.

  • There are certain meditation techniques you can do beforehand, as well as setting up a relaxing physical environment to improve your debate-watching experience.

  • If you feel triggered by something you heard during the debate, notice that and press pause, then come back to it later.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

This election season comes with an unprecedented level of stress. Never before has the country faced a presidential election during a pandemic, much less with the incumbent candidate contracting the virus just a month before Election Day.

Even before that development, more than 50% of American adults said the coronavirus pandemic has had a negative effect on their mental health, according to a July poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation. 60% of respondents said they think the worst is yet to come.

"Because of the kind of election season that we're in with this election in particular, it does require an extra level of care that it may not have required in seasons past," Alfiee Breland-Noble, PhD, psychologist, author, founder of mental health nonprofit the AAKOMA Project, told Insider. "I can remember the Romney-Obama debates, and I don't remember getting anywhere near as riled up or worried."

Going into the second and final presidential debate, there are a few mindfulness and self-care practices you can try to stay calm while watching it. Insider spoke with Breland-Noble and Lynne Goldberg, co-founder of meditation app Breethe, about how to manage feelings of anxiety before, during, and after the upcoming debate.

Why the debates are so triggering

Humans are wired to perceive uncertainty as a threat, Goldberg told Insider — and with a particularly divisive and high-stakes election coming up, there's plenty of it going around.

Unsure situations where you feel a lack of control, like watching a contentious political debate, trigger a visceral fight-or-flight response even if you're not in immediate danger.

Meditation is the antidote to that stressed-out feeling, said Goldberg, whose team at Breethe said created election-specific guided meditations, including "So You Want to Flee the Country" and "Across-the-Aisle Conversations."

"When you meditate, you're releasing feel-good hormones like oxytocin and serotonin, and you're able to tell yourself physically, 'I am not in danger. I'm okay,'" Goldberg said. "That helps not just alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that people are feeling, but also can really keep tempers at bay."

Before the debate, prep your mind and physical space

Prior to tuning into the debate, Breland-Noble recommends taking stock of how much stress you can handle, how you typically respond to stress, and what your triggers may be. If you feel like you might not be able to watch the debate straight through, she said it's OK to take breaks or to read the transcript later.

Now would be a good time to take 10 minutes to breathe into your belly and set an intention going into the debate-watching experience. Goldberg suggested focusing on the big picture — such as the roof over your head and good things in your life — and accepting that you can't control the outcome of the debate.

"That feeling that somehow we are able to control the events around us is delusional," Goldberg said. "It's as if we were on a roller coaster and we thought we were driving the individual cars."

You can control your physical environment by taking a few minutes ahead of the debate to set up a stress-free space. Breland-Noble said she likes to light a scented candle so she has a positive sensory experience to balance out any feelings of agitation or frustration. She also recommends having a distraction handy, like a bowl of popcorn or something to occupy your hands. 

During the debate, acknowledge your triggers and don't be afraid to press pause

In the case that one of the candidates says something upsetting or offensive during the debate, Breland-Noble shared a three-step process for addressing a triggering event.

First, acknowledge the incident.

"Sometimes what happens is we keep going and then 10 minutes later, we're wondering why our hands are shaking or our stomach hurts. It's because we never took time in the moment to say, 'you know what, that really upset me,'" Breland-Noble said.

Once you've named the trigger, Breland-Noble said to press pause and walk away for a minute. Step outside for a breath of fresh air and clear your mind.

Finally, when you're ready, tell yourself, "This is a reset. Now I'm going to move on to the next thing." It might not make sense to go right back to the debate, she said — and the perk of modern DVR capabilities is that you can record the debate and return to it later.

Everyone, candidates and viewers alike, is bringing their identities and political histories into the room, which might determine how they respond to hearing particular issues discussed.

"We want to be mindful that all of us are bringing different experiences to the table," Breland-Noble said. "For marginalized communities, it's not just the person from that background, it's also the people who care about that person who may not share that marginalized background."

After the debate, do box breathing

Post-debate is a good time to go into a different room and practice some box breathing — inhale for four counts, exhale for four counts, and repeat. This deep breathing exercise will activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which tells your body to calm down, Goldberg said.

If you're still struggling with feeling a lack of control, Goldberg said shifting your focus to what you can control, such as voting and following health protocols, can have an empowering effect after dealing with an uncertain situation.

But don't try to change the world in one night. It's important to take this moment to decompress and reset before going to bed so you don't take the strong emotions stirred by the debate with you, Breland-Noble said.

In the following days, avoid oversaturating yourself with debate and election-related news. Know your limits for news consumption, just like you reflected on your stress threshold before the debate, Breland-Noble said. Between the election, the pandemic, and issues of racial justice, it can feel like your newsfeed is a pressure cooker, she said.

"It's like if you just put one more thing in there, you're going to pop the top off," Breland-Noble said. "And that's what the election stress really is. It's just that one more thing on top of everything else, that if you consume too much of it, you are going to blow your top."

Read more:

The plexiglass barriers that will separate Harris and Pence at the debate probably won't stop coronavirus-laden aerosols, scientists say

You can stay in an underground cave during election week to de-stress for $5 per night

How Americans are trying to cope with coronavirus stress, from seeking therapy to leaning on alcohol or humor

Read the original article on Insider