Coping with Current Affairs

Dr. Vanessa Beasley talks about how the current political climate can be stressful to us all, and how one might deal with all the information we receive on a daily basis.

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Rosemary Cope:  Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt Health and Wellness wellcast.  I am Rosemary Cope with Work/Life Connections.  My guest today is Dr. Vanessa Beasley.  Dr. Beasley is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Vice Provost of Academic Affairs, and Dean of the Residential Faculty at Vanderbilt University.  Her interests include U.S. political communication and Presidential rhetoric.  The American Psychological Association's 2016 Stress in America Survey conducted online among some 3,400 American adults, and published in February of 2017, found that 63% of respondents regard the future of the country as a "significant source of stress" and some 56% say that their stressed by the current political climate.  The 2018 edition of the survey showed that the number of Americans who viewed the future of the country as a significant stressor had jumped to 69%, and those who saw the political climate as a source of stress, well, that had jumped to 62%.  So, Dr. Beasley, thank you for meeting with me today, and what have you noticed about how the current political climate has affected people in their everyday lives?

Dr. Vanessa Beasley:  Hi, Rosemary.  I am happy to be with you here today.  It is interesting to think about how people express the ways the political climate is stressful for them.  Many times, people will say, "Oh, it's the media; I am tired of hearing this kind of news."  Other times people will talk about how it has impacted their family relationships and perhaps having the family member that they might have known before they didn't have the same political beliefs before, but now, having that Thanksgiving table perhaps feel a little bit more different, a little bit more resentment maybe and some anger.

Rosemary Cope:  You know, political winds blow in many different directions from year to year.  Do you see us, as a country, in a unique time, or have we been here before?

Dr. Vanessa Beasley:  I think that's such a great question.  I'm going to give you two different answers to it.

Rosemary Cope:  Okay.

Dr. Vanessa Beasley:  One is from the historian's view.  Have we lived, as a nation, through challenges before?  Absolutely.  So, absolutely, and it's really interesting to go through those challenges and think about the ways in which there are parallels.  I think that's a fascinating way to think about history, right?  Why do these cycles occur?  One of the things that's interesting about that approach, though, is that, even if it's happened before, WE weren't there before, right?  So, it depends on how reassuring the idea that history may or may not repeat itself is to you, or it might be frightening to you to think about it that way as well.  And a second way I'll answer that question is - even if we can find really profound and moving analogs for challenges the country has been through in the past, it's also true that we haven't had the kind of media environment that we have today.  So, it's really important to think about the experience of history and how we think about the past but also how we are experiencing the present and the degree to which individuals might think, "Oh, it's helping me to have more information about the present," or, "It might be hurting me to have as much information as I do about the present," and to make some choices about their media diet.

Rosemary Cope:  That's a great point that we are bombarded almost everywhere we go by media influences and making healthy choices makes a difference, doesn't it?

Dr. Vanessa Beasley:  It does.  It does.

Rosemary Cope:  So, in your position, you already know that students are greatly shaped by all types of media, and actually, we are all affected.  So, any thoughts on how to be healthy while we try to negotiate our way through the current news and rhetoric?

Dr. Vanessa Beasley:  Yeah.  I think there are some parallels in the first place between how we approach a healthy media diet and how we might approach the rest of the things in our lives that we think have a dietary model.  So, one of the most obvious might just be moderation, right?  If you find that you are really addicted to that ping of breaking news on your phone all the time, if you find that you are struggling to unplug, if you find that you are struggling to find something to be hopeful about, that may be a sign that you've gone down the rabbit hole one too many times.  And some people really do benefit from taking a break.  I also tell people, though, that if you take a break entirely and just say, "I've had it; I can't do that anymore," then you might also want to think about whether that's a good idea either in the same way you would think that refraining from eating for a long time, right?  You need nourishment.  So, if we want to stay engaged as citizens, we need information.  That's just how it is.  The tricky party is - we all have to decide what we consume, again, much like food, and actually, we are in a better situation with food than we are with media, because with food, at least we have an FDA, and with media, we don't.  We have a consumer model of media in this country and that's because the value of freedom of the press, right, which is a very important value ... I would be the first in line to defend the freedom of the press ... and it also means that it's a marketplace of ideas when it comes to what's out there.  So, as consumers, we have to be really, really careful about the news that we read, what we assume is true, the evidence we look for, and I think it's more important now, perhaps than it's been in a while, for us to realize that, that there are so many different stories out there.  Some of them, yes, are fake, but it depends on, you know, your ability to say, "Well, how am I being as a reader; what am I doing as a listener," or even as a viewer of certain visual representations of news, to think about, you know, whether or not there is bias.  I tell students the bias is going to be there, so it is impossible to find bias-free information.  What it is possible to do is get better as a critical thinker yourself and think about how those arguments are being supported with evidence or not.

Rosemary Cope:  I like that last thought, especially, to be a critical thinker, because if I am going to be balanced in my life, I have to think about the things I subject myself to, what I hear, what I see on the screen, who I am around, and if I can filter through that to monitor my own responses, then I am in a better place.

Dr. Vanessa Beasley:  That's right.  And some of it does really come down to thinking about your media consumption as a form of self-care, right?  Are there times when you do need to take that break and read a book or do whatever it is that is relaxing for you?  And are there other times when you think, "Wow, I don't know anything at all about this issue; it is up to me to research it and start to read a little bit more about it."

Rosemary Cope:  Great.  Well, thank you for sharing those brief insights with us, and you know, readers and listeners, if you begin to feel overwhelmed and need a place to talk, the Employee Assistance Program has open and friendly counselors who are always available to help.

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