Turn Down Your Stress

The pandemic grinds on. The election is approaching. Wildfires are blazing. And now Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died.

I’m old enough to remember the tumult of 1968 and the Watergate years, but these past several months have been an even bigger challenge to our individual and collective sanity.

On a Zoom call recently, some friends decribed how they’ve been coping with the unrelenting stress, from going on hikes to watching webcams of wild bears. Others have been binge-watching Netflix, baking bread or learning hobbies. Many are struggling.

One way I’ve been reducing stress is by walking six miles daily.

 

I’ve found relief in exercising, reading and spending time with our family, as well as in something I hadn’t viewed previously as a way to relieve anxiety: my volunteering.

I assist North Carolina’s partnership with Moldova, transport donations for a food bank, write letters to potential voters and provide editorial or financial assistance to causes I support. Recently I’ve also been helping to launch a program for older volunteers to assist Durham community groups, one of which I’m helping myself.

Champa joined me in delivering a food donation from a local grocery store to this Durham food pantry.

 

I didn’t pursue these activities so as to ease my own sense of unease and despair during a pandemic. But that’s what they’ve ended up doing for me.

As I experienced in the Peace Corps a few years ago, serving others shifts your attention from yourself. It reminds you how lucky you are. It connects you to the wider community and gives meaning to your life.

For me, the pandemic has also highlighted how volunteering can reduce stress, as scientists have confirmed. A 2015 study by researchers at the Yale School of Medicine found that adults who helped others reported higher levels of positive emotion. “Prosocial behavior moderated the effects of stress on positive affect, negative affect, and overall mental health,” they reported.

Michael Poulin, a University of Buffalo researcher, described it this way: ”When you are thinking about helping other people you’re simply not thinking as much about yourself and your problems … In essence it’s a kind of distraction, but a more satisfying distraction than surfing the Web or binge-watching House of Cards.”

Religious faiths tell us the same thing, that giving enriches the giver.

Paige Greenwood, a neuroscience doctoral candidate at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, published this article after participating in a free online workshop I taught about writing op-eds.

 

Don’t get me wrong: I still shudder at the pandemic’s rising death toll and sputter at what I see on the news. I know how important passion can be to spurring political action.

I also recognize that my own modest efforts come from a place of privilege and pale in comparison to those of many other volunteers, not to mention those who’ve been battling the pandemic and saving lives in other ways. While West Coast fire fighters have fighting huge blazes, I have been safe at home, with my wife, free to volunteer. Others face stresses far bigger than mine.

My Peace Corps friend Jim Fletcher and I spoke at this orientation program for UNC dental students preparing to visit Moldova.

 

Still, our collective anxiety is real, and I have a suggestion for those feeling overwhelmed as the campaign enters its final stretch. If they are spending hours sharing angry memes on Facebook or Twitter with like-minded friends, ratcheting up their own emotions, they might want to turn off their smartphones and, instead, help a neighbor or organization in need. (Activate Good is a great place to find opportunities here in the Triangle.)

They may find, as I have, that helping others during stress-filled times is a good way to renew their own equilibrium and strength. Based on what we’ve seen so far this year, we’re all going to need it.

They’re Not ‘Shitholes’

As we approach an election with huge implications for our country and the world, a U.S. agency charged with promoting international friendship needs to make some big changes.

That agency is the Peace Corps, in which I served twice as a volunteer.

On Wednesday, the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) highlighted on LinkedIn a talk I gave recently arguing the Peace Corps is way too focused on “development” and not enough on helping Americans and others to learn about each other.

No one is better situated than Peace Corps Volunteers to explain to their fellow Americans that developing countries are not “shitholes” — or to help people around the world see the realities of our own society.

Moreover, it’s their mission to do this. according to the agency’s three goals. One goal is to assist economic development, the other two are to promote cross-cultural understanding. Yet the Peace Corps now devotes almost all of its attention and resources to the first goal, even though returned volunteers say the other two end up mattering the most. This approach makes less sense now than ever before, as some politicians whip up fear about “the other.”

Peace Corps Volunteers can help Americans recognize that foreigners, including Muslims and people of color, share many of their own dreams and are not their enemies — and they can do so while maintaining the agency’s nonpolitical, bipartisan tradition.

NCPA has posted my 5-minute talk on YouTube. I hope it will help spark an overdue conversation about the agency’s programming after the pandemic eases and volunteers return to the field. I also discussed some of these issues in an earlier post and in my recent book, Not Exactly Retired: A Life-Changing Journey on the Road and in the Peace Corps.

The talk was part of NPCA’s “global ideas summit” (also on YouTube), which raised many interesting questions about the future of the Peace Corps — an organization I love and want to see have a bigger impact.

I welcome your comments.

 

 

(Top image from Olivia Prentzel’s Peace Corps blog.)