Avoiding Toxic Conversations in Our Turbulent Political Times

The recent criminal verdicts against former President Donald Trump and Hunter Biden highlight once again how diametrically opposed our thinking can be from our neighbors. Both sides often interpret events through the lenses of their past beliefs, leading to opposite conclusions. As a mental health provider, what concerns me is the vigor with which some are supporting their beliefs.

Information overload leading to excess cortisol is a significant factor contributing to the outpouring of emotions. As we’ve discussed previously, negative news spikes our cortisol levels. Our bodies enter fight, flight or freeze mode, and our thinking becomes hyperfocused and less complex. When we find ourselves at odds with colleagues, classmates, friends or family, we secrete more cortisol, fueling the cycle.

Gandhi wisely urged us, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Here are some tips to help you create a calmer, more productive and joyful summer ahead despite whatever the world news throws at us.

1. Consume news carefully: Monitor closely the news you ingest. Check local and world news as needed and not throughout your day. Reading (not watching) the news can be less distressing, and avoid stories that are too triggering. Ask yourself what actions you can take to be a part of the solution, such as writing your Congressional representative, donating time or money to causes you care about, or reaching out to a friend or neighbor who may be directly or indirectly impacted by current events. Listen to a variety of news sources to make sure you are getting a rounded view of events.

2. Think before you speak: Be thoughtful about how and when to share your viewpoints. Many friendships and family relationships have been severed over differing views on Trump, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hunter Biden and many other issues we are facing. How many more relationships can we afford to lose? Speaking up in the right situation is imperative, but doing so in the wrong situation or wrong way can be destructive. Telling the difference is not easy. Remember you can’t take back hurtful words. I often tell my patients that while silence is golden, duct tape is silver.

3. Know your why: If you choose to bring up a potentially divisive subject, be clear about your goals and make sure you are taking the right steps to achieve them. Difficult conversations are best considered for at least 24 hours before diving in to ensure you are speaking from a thoughtful and not impulsive place. Writing notes in advance can help. Even ChatGPT can assist you in finding the right words to use if you decide to speak up.

4. Choose conversations wisely: If we only speak to friends with similar views, we remain in our echo chamber and fail to grow. If we seek opinions too far from our own, we risk feeling enraged. So, where do we draw the line? Each of us must draw it in a way that works. Some like to keep their conversations as conflict-free as possible while others love a good sparring match. My best advice is to know yourself and carefully choose the right people with whom to discuss particular issues.

5. Speak thoughtfully: Rules developed for couples having difficult conversations can be applied here as well. No name-calling or insulting. Talk directly about how you feel. During a challenging conversation, think of pointing the finger at yourself, not the other person. This reminds you to make statements like, “I feel, I think, I believe…” If you point a finger at someone, they will get defensive, and the conversation will likely be unproductive.

6. Listen attentively: Make sure to give the other person your undivided attention and give them time to explain how they feel. This may be uncomfortable, but it is the best way to learn.

7. Plan your exit strategy: If you become too distressed, have a phrase ready to exit the conversation such as, “While I appreciate your willingness to share, I find this topic too upsetting and prefer not to go further with this conversation right now.”

8. Take time to collect your thoughts: When we stop the hamster wheel in our head, we can find inner quiet. From that space, it is easier to be creative and solve problems. We are living in a time of great challenge and opportunity. Walking in nature, dipping in the pool or ocean, watching a sunset, sitting under a tree or meditating give us an opportunity to reboot our brain and figure out what we can or should do to help our world. It needs us. As Mark Twain said, “Actions speak louder than words but not nearly as often.”

We are now in yet another fascinating chapter in American history. As we wait for Trump and Biden to be sentenced, remember it is our responsibility to care for ourselves and our relationships and to make choices that enhance our well-being. Work to avoid the rabbit hole of unproductive conversations both in person and online. Time holds the answer to all the questions we have now, and a healthy mind and body will best prepare us for whatever lies ahead.

“Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” 


Beverly Hills Courier columnist Dr. Eva Ritvo is a psychiatrist with more than 30 years’  experience practicing in Miami Beach. She is the author of “Bekindr-The Transformative Power of Kindness” and the founder of the Bekindr Global Initiative, a movement to bring more kindness in the world. She is the co-author of “The Beauty Prescription” and “The Concise Guide to Marriage and Family Therapy.” She is also the co-founder of the Bold Beauty Project, a nonprofit that pairs women with disabilities with award-winning photographers creating art exhibitions to raise awareness. Dr. Ritvo received her undergraduate and medical degrees from UCLA, and psychiatry residency training at Weill Cornell Medicine.

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