"Anxiety and stress are to be expected when so much seems to lay on the line—for people on both sides of the aisles."

Mackenzie Dunn
Updated Oct 07, 2020 @ 6:04 pm
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Credit: Jaime Grill, Getty Images

You’ve watched the debate(s). You’ve registered to vote. Maybe you've even requested your absentee ballot or gone to vote early. But whatever you do, you can’t seem to stop stressing out about the election. Perhaps you’re even losing sleep over it. You’re far from alone. A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that over half (56%) of U.S. adults identify the upcoming 2020 presidential election as a significant stressor. Another survey reports that 47% of workers say that the 2020 election has distracted them from doing their jobs.

This election is happening in a year with vast wildfires out west, racial injustices perpetuating despite cries for equality, and the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic—all crises that are exacerbating tensions and stress nationwide. So if it feels particularly personal, impactful, and draining to think about the election right now, that’s because it is. 

But then, how do you process and deal with election stress? How do you continue to put one foot in front of the other with so much looming uncertainty? It's not easy, but we talked to psychologists and mental health experts for their tips on coping with the stress of the 2020 election. After all, with a rise in mail-in ballots this year due to the pandemic, it’s likely that we won’t even get to know the results until late November, so we're far from being out of the woods on this. For now, it’s important to take care of yourself. Here’s what the experts have to say. 

What causes election stress?

“Elections can feel particularly personal,” says Myra Altman, Ph.D., a psychologist and vice president of clinical care at Modern Health. “The outcome might affect our lives, our decisions, and our future. We might be personally invested in the result and this can cause heightened feelings of worry, stress, and anxiety around the outcome,” she says. Additionally, she points out that many people are already suffering from a prolonged period of stress because of the global health pandemic, racial injustices, environmental concerns, and financial stress. “These events are exacerbated by the extreme polarization in the country now, where conflict is high and mutual understanding and respect seem low,” she says.

Sanam Hafeez, M.D., a New York-based neuropsychologist and Columbia University faculty member, agrees, telling us that the stakes in 2020 are even higher and the sentiments are even more polarized than they were in 2016.

As for why your mind and body can’t seem to relax recently, the psychology is simple. “When faced with stress and uncertainty, our bodies respond similarly to physical threats (i.e. if there’s a tiger in front of you),” explains Dr. Altman, resulting in a sense of fear and intense, heightened anxiety. She tells us that we have a finite capacity for coping with these reactions that tend to become depleted without proper self-care. “The increased demands of the current moment, especially for parents and others struggling with limited resources, make it much harder to stick with effective coping strategies,” she says.

Ultimately, this leads to us feeling exhausted, nervous, and overly stressed out about the fact that we can’t predict what will happen in the next few weeks. After all, humans are hardwired to hate uncertainty. But prioritizing our health and self-care is paramount right now, so here are some ways the mitigate those feelings.

How to deal with election stress:

1. Focus on what you can change.

"The election is not something that you can entirely control nor are other people's beliefs or opinions," says Dr. Atlman "It's important for you to focus on what you can do, such as voting or other civic engagement (Volunteer at a polling site. Do phone bank calls.) which can reduce feelings of powerlessness and the stress of uncertainty."

"Not only is it an exercise in our civil duty, but in times of disarray, it helps to do everything we can to voice our preference," says Dr. Hafeez.

2. Identify your main stressors and set boundaries with social media.

We know you already know this, but we're just going to say it again: Stop the doom scrolling. Right now, as you're reading this, you've probably received a half dozen or so notifications from a news apps or social media posts, highlighting yet another controversy. Try not to engage right away.

"Spending too much time monitoring the 24/7 political news cycle can make you more anxious or emotionally reactive, leading you to you feel overwhelmed," says. Dr, Altman. To combat this, she suggests setting some boundaries that you are comfortable with to prioritize your own mental health. This can be something like setting aside time to check the news and a time to specifically put the phone away. Find a schedule (e.g., two times a day) and an amount of time (e.g., 15 minutes reading the news) that works for you and stick to it. Focus on legitimate news sources for updates, instead of speculation on social media, as these can end up leading to more fear.

"This doesn’t mean to ignore the information," says Dr. Hafeez. "Stay informed, but make sure you leave time for walks, family time, self-care, and other activities that fulfill you. Remember that taking breaks from the news and our electronics is healthy." 

3. Channel your stress response into action.

Worrying alone won't change our political system. "Acknowledge what is happening, slow down, and then take action if you can," suggests Dr. Altman. One 2001 study found that the people who benefit the most from political participation were those who were more “prone to psychological distress,” so try to turn those anxious feelings into empowerment. For example, find a cause or campaign you care about and volunteer or donate to it.

"Since the national politics and policies affect much of our lives, especially when we start talking about women’s reproductive rights, gay marriage, voting rights, and civil rights, finding causes you care about and wish to donate or volunteer for may give you added affirmation that you aren’t resting on your beliefs," says Dr. Hafeez.

4. Engage in your connections.

Research has shown that having a strong support system can result in many positive benefits, such as higher levels of well-being and better-coping skills. Studies have also shown that social support can reduce depression and anxiety. So it's imperative for you to reach out to your people and let them know how you're feeling. "Talking with your loved ones about your stress and anxiety can be very comforting," says Dr. Hafeez. "It is also more personal and healing than ranting to the masses on your social media feed." Engage in conversations that make you feel supported and uplifted. If talking about politics stresses you out, though, let your support system know it is not something you have space for right now. It's okay to talk about other things to get your mind off the election.

5. Focus on feel-good activities.

Take a mental vacation from the stress of the election and the endless news cycle by engaging in activities you like. Dr. Altman recommends placing your energy into two types of activities: pleasurable activities (like cooking, watching a movie, etc) and mastery activities (things that give you a sense of accomplishment like cleaning your dishes, responding to an email, or paying a bill). She says it's a good idea to plan these out ahead of time, not just when you feel like it so that you incentivize yourself to complete them and to help keep that feel-good energy going. According to her, "Often, improvements in mood will follow engagement in valued activities."

6. Take care of your physical wellness.

During periods of psychological stress, we often forget to take care of our bodies, despite the fact that research proves intense stress can have a physical impact on us as well. That's why self-care is so important.

"Lifestyle factors such as nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress management all help to reduce the effects of psychological stress on the body," says Dr. Altman. So don't forget to eat healthily, get outside for a walk here and there, and prioritize a normal sleep schedule over the perpetual late-night social media scrolling. You can also try simple breathing exercises, meditation, journaling, or a bit of gentle yoga to tap into the mind-body connection.

"By engaging in activities that are restful and rejuvenating, you are filling up your 'coping container' so that you will be more likely to be able to handle what comes your way," Dr. Altman tells us.

7. Know when to ask for help.

"If your anxiety and stress begin to seep into your everyday life and cause disruptions in your education or employment, consider reaching out to a mental health expert," says Dr. Hafeez. Therapy is a healthy way to explore your history, your experiences, and find ways of coping with your anxiety that is both healthy and helpful. And if you don't have the ability to access therapy right now, try out other mental health resources or simply reach out to family members or loved ones in the interim.

No matter what happens on November 3rd, professionals will be there to help you work through it.