In this crazy political season, it’s easy to find yourself strongly disagreeing with your friends, family or coworkers. You might even get so worked up that it puts extra pressure on your heart.
But you don’t have to suppress your political passion. You can be true to your views without all that stress.
A clever new psychological study has found that your personal motivation and goals make a big difference in how your body responds when you are with people who have very different views.
If you do it right, you can express yourself and keep your heart healthy.
FITTING IN ON THE OUTSIDE…STRESSED ON THE INSIDE
To test how the stress of political disagreement affects people’s hearts, researchers fitted 77 volunteers with small, noninvasive heart-monitoring devices—then asked them to express themselves about a controversial political topic to a group of people with opposing views. The political topic chosen by the researchers was related to Obamacare—specifically, whether “the government should provide health insurance to everyone, even if it means raising taxes.”
Some participants were given a goal that the researchers described as “fitting in”—that is, to promote consensus and “reach an opinion that you all agree on.” Other participants were given a goal of individuality—to “express your opinions and demonstrate your core values.”
Then each participant was asked to record a short statement expressing his/her opinions on the matter—believing that it would be shared with the larger group that disagreed. They didn’t ever actually “meet” the group—the session was ended after they recorded their statement.
The study was actually designed to gauge how their bodies reacted when they thought they were going to have to face a group with opposing views. Giving that little speech made the hearts of participants beat faster and harder whether they were trying to promote consensus or to demonstrate their core values. But there were dramatic differences in other cardiovascular effects.
THREAT VS. CHALLENGE
From the outside, both situations might look pretty similar—an individual gives a short statement about his/her opinion on a controversial topic. You probably do that in real life all the time. But the motivation going into the crafting and delivering of that statement changed how their bodies reacted…
- When the participants tried to create consensus—to change their listeners’ minds, for example—their arteries constricted, so less blood could circulate. While there were no blood tests, the most likely explanation, according to the researchers, is that the situation caused a negative pattern in their stress hormones and nervous systems, which causes this kind of negative cardiovascular result. It’s a psychological state of “It’s a conflicted pattern,” said lead study author Mark D. Seery, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. Two motivations are working against each other, he explained—you’re trying to reach your goal on the one hand…but on the other hand, you’re being vigilant in case the whole situation deteriorates and you feel that you’ll have to “withdraw from the situation entirely.”
- When the participants valued their own individuality, on the other hand, their arteries dilated so that more blood could flow throughout their bodies. This is a positive psychological state called challenge. “During challenge,” explained Dr. Seery, “your full cardiovascular response is a consistent and coherent pattern—the heart is working harder, arteries going to the large muscles in the arms and legs dilate, which in turn facilitates the heart pumping more blood. In other words, your heart and arteries are working in concert, like during exercise.”
Challenge happens when you have a task to accomplish but you feel up to it. In this case, one could speculate that you may feel capable of expressing your opinions and being yourself—but not so confident that you can convince a group with radically different views to all agree. While the negative cardiovascular effects of aiming for consensus were modest in this study, over time that kind of chronic stress may increase the risk for cardiovascular disease. In short, it’s likely to be healthier to feel challenged than to feel threatened.
IT FEELS GOOD TO BE TRUE TO YOURSELF
That’s not to say you should start arguments with your friends, family or colleagues just for the fun of it. If you want to stay friends and the topic turns to controversial politics, the researchers recommend that you try adopting a tactic shown to be effective in other psychological studies—start by emphasizing common ground. That’ll help the group bond so that when you do discuss differences, it’s more comfortable for everyone.
But don’t make it a personal goal to get everyone to agree. That’s not something you can control. Instead, just feel good about expressing what you truly believe—and agree to disagree.
Bottom line? To thine own self be true. It’s good for your heart.
For more ways to chill out, see Bottom Line’s “Guide to Easy Ways to Reduce Stress.”