Until the 2016 election, Princeton psychologist Ruth Goldston was not an activist. “Like many people, up until now, I’ve thought that other people would take care of it,” she says. But talking to friends and clients over the last year and a half about their feelings of despair and also struggling with her own emotions, she says, “I realized I had something to offer in terms of coping.”

What helped her was engaging in “meaningful activity.” During Andrew Zwicker’s 2017 campaign for New Jersey Assembly she raised money, made phone calls, walked the streets, and contributed office supplies and furniture for his office.

“The fact that in the end he won by 4,000 votes, and pulled someone else [Roy Freiman] along with him, made me feel like my efforts, small though they were, were worthwhile,” she recalls. In his 2015 upset Zwicker had won by only 78 votes.

Goldston will speak on “Surviving Political Despair,” Wednesday, April 18, at 7:30 p.m., at the Unitarian Universalist Church’s Fahs Theater,off the walkway at the back of the parking lot, 50 Cherry Hill Road, Princeton. For more information, contact Goldston at ruth.goldston@gmail.com.

To successfully survive a period of confusion and despair, Goldston suggests, demands self-knowledge and a commitment to meaningful action:

Understand the purpose of your emotions. “Our emotional communication,” Goldston says, “is this whole other language that you don’t know you know, but you’re speaking it all the time, and it’s having an effect on you. It’s usually producing energy to help you do something.”

But often that energy can go awry. If there is a threat in the environment, people respond automatically, without thinking about it, and they may not make the right choice. “Depending on how you assess the situation, you might get angry and fight back, or you might fly, or you might freeze,”Goldston says.

“The problem is we tend to respond to even very tiny amounts [of threat]. The system is designed to be sensitive; it is designed to save your life.” But the result can be false negatives: the system goes off even when the threat isn’t life-threatening. Goldston likens this to a smoke detector she once had that went off every time she turned the oven on. It was responding, she says, to “one molecule of smoke.”

“When we talk about things like anxiety and fear, really, lots of times we respond like there are life-threatening problems when it is really just a molecule of smoke in the air. Once you know these things, you can notice when you’re feeling that way.” Then you can ask yourself, “Why am I feeling that way?” or “Is this an immediately life-threatening situation?”

“This warning system that communicates by feeling to you and others is producing energy, and you can use that energy constructively or you can let sit around in body and make you nuts or you can give up,” she explains. Giving up, though, can often lead to depression or despair. But if you can understand how your brain and emotions work, Goldston says, “You can start to maybe stand back from your emotions a little bit.”

Figure out an activity that is meaningful to you. Don’t get paralyzed by the idea that everything seems important, but try to build on Goldston’s discovery while working on the Zwicker campaign. “I let myself just work on that; it allowed me to let go of all the other things,” she says, adding that to accomplish this requires “some belief that what you’re not doing, somebody else is doing.”

But it’s not easy. On the one hand, people are overwhelmed constantly by provocative messages and tweets that arouse anxiety and even despair. Other messages are asking us to sign petitions and make phone calls, or are even giving us lists of things to do. But, Goldston says, “realistically, I’m only going to do one or two of them.”

Use your own skills and talents. Goldston has decided to use her skills as a psychologist to develop the upcoming session on “Surviving Political Despair” to help people redirect their anxiety into positive action.“I’m bringing my skills and talents this way because I feel like a lot of people are paralyzed at this point,” she says. “The most effective action is not something you do on an immediate basis. You’re more likely to be successful if, instead of reacting, you do something in an organized and planned way.”

Goldston was born in Buffalo. Her parents, very recent immigrants, had lost their homes and family members in the Holocaust. She started reading about psychology at 15 or 16 as a way of understanding the world and human beings. Viewing human beings from the perspective of interacting emotions appeals to her, she says, because “it’s sort of like chemistry; there is a finite number of elements that can combine in different ways.” The result, of course, is quite complex.

Musing about the relationship of her career choice to her birth family, she notes the importance of being the child of multilingual parents, language being the medium of relationship. She also suggests that her interest in viewing emotions as an interactive system might relate to having a father who is a chemist.

Goldston earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Harvard University in 1973. She moved to Princeton in 1974 as a young newlywed, with her husband, Rob Goldston, professor of astrophysics at Princeton University and now a former director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

She immediately enrolled in a master’s program in counseling, then worked for seven years as a counselor at Brookdale Community College. Her children, Josh and Jacob Goldston, were young when she decided to take some courses in psychology in 1983.

She eventually joined a doctoral program in psychology at Rutgers University, with a focus on research. But when she got a job on a project that involved interviewing people for depression, she started to take clinical courses to gain the skills she needed for this work. After completing her PhD in 1991 and then getting her license, she started a private practice, focusing in particular on depression, anxiety, and relationship issues.

“My approach is what I would call cognitive-emotional — using your cognitive system, your thinking brain, to understand your emotional brain, and how they work together,” she says.

Although the history of civilization has been based on the idea of the logical system dominating the emotional system, Goldston has a different vision for understanding civic development. “I’m thinking a better approach is a collaboration between the emotional and logical thinking systems — one doesn’t have to dominate the other,” she says.

Goldston’s thoughts about the direction of civilization and about democracy in our country likely have some tie to her parents’ experiences in Europe. “The phrase ‘Never again!’ is very meaningful to me,” she says. “Seeing what’s happening now and relating it to my family’s experience very directly — the kinds of things that the government is trying to foist upon us are the same things that happened in the world in the 1930s and ’40s. That personal connection is very real to me.”

So, right now, for Goldston, talk about the current political reality and potential solutions is not enough. Although talking is one thing we do “to vent and relieve our anxiety and despair,” she says, “it doesn’t substitute for doing things. For myself, the doing addresses the anxiety and the despair.”

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