Once upon a time when my nerves were feeling especially frayed, I’d retreat to the movie theater. What was on screen never really mattered as much as the act of sitting in a dark room in the company of strangers; it was soothing. As my stress levels have continued to spike this year, it’s a place, and a feeling, I have found myself longing for over and over again. While the pandemic has altered our collective reality in myriad ways, one of them has been the elimination of what are, for many of us, coping mechanisms in times of heightened stress: a boozy meal with friends amid the din of a busy restaurant; a crowded, heart-pumping SoulCycle class; a sweaty session in a steam room; and, yes, a solo afternoon trip to the movie theater (bliss!).

“In the absence of the things that were our normal coping mechanisms, we’ve had to come up with new ways to manage our stress,” says Brooklyn-based clinical psychologist Nanika Coor, Psy.D. “Some people have been able to do that more easily, but most are feeling really overwhelmed without their familiar strategies, and the stress that builds up from that can start getting toxic.” In the lead-up to the election, that stress has escalated dramatically. A recent poll by the American Psychological Association found that two-thirds of people report feeling an increase in stress related to the election, an uptick from the same time in 2016. And that stress is bipartisan. “The polarization that has marked the past four years pushed each ideological group to extremity, which psychologically entailed regressing into more primitive underlying assumptions,” explains clinical psychologist Orna Guralnik (also the titular therapist in Showtime’s Couples Therapy). “Our positions are now utterly mutually exclusive and there is no longer the possibility of a shared reality. It’s a state of eat or be eaten.” The erosion of our collective trust in a degree of common truth has also, adds Guralnik, furthered that divide and stoked fear, anxiety, and a sense of isolation.

That that sense of isolation during what is, at base level, an extremely fraught election is compounded since we are all, literally, more isolated than ever because of a pandemic. And social isolation is commonly and traditionally correlated with depression and anxiety. “People feel like their values are so deeply tied to whatever happens in this election so there’s a lot of catastrophic thinking happening on both sides,” says Thea Gallagher, Psy.D., the Clinic Director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at UPenn. When we feel an overwhelming sense that we are unmoored, it may be important to focus on what is, instead, within our grasp. “We can’t control the election or the pandemic, but we can control some things in our life,” Coor adds. Here, some advice from experts on how to contend with the feelings—the many, many feelings—that 2020 has surfaced.

If you’re having trouble sleeping…

There are many elements that factor into improving your sleep hygiene. Chief among them, and perhaps most relevant to our current state of sleeplessness, is separating yourself from your technology, and, more critically, from the endless news: staying informed doesn’t have to mean being constantly plugged in. Besides putting your phone to bed (far away from your own bed, it should be added) before you hit the pillow, Gallagher says you should put a timer on your daily consumption: she suggests ten minutes max. (Yup, you read that right. If you need a little longer than ten minutes to get through the top stories, then focus on limiting your news consumption to a specific short period during the day and resist the urge to constantly dip back in.) “We really have to be intentional about taking space,” says Gallagher. “It’s not ignorant or burying your head in the sand. You can stay informed and also protect your mental health.” 

If you feel adrift…

According to Coor, there’s a lot to be said for prioritizing the meeting of your basic needs: healthy food, sunshine, sleep, connection, movement, and, also, boundaries. Our home and work lives have become overlapped, often uncomfortably so. “Everything flows together and there’s no space from anything, so creating those boundaries for yourself [with your partner and kids if you have them] is a self-caring thing to do,” she says. And, while it may seem counterintuitive, movement can also go far in helping us feel more grounded. To wit, this week, The Class by Taryn Toomey is offering quickie 15-minute classes focused on movement and breath through their virtual studio. On Sky Ting TV, you can stream instructor Jenn Tardif’s nervous system-calming grounding and moving meditation classes and, timed to election week, stream five days of free restorative classes.

If you’re distracted…

Lean into it. “Your anxiety is signaling that there are feelings and issues you need to attend to, so create some real space for it,” says Guralnik. Amidst the constant stream of news, the inability to focus is a common complaint, but to really understand the root of what may be causing your anxiety, you have to embrace some distraction. Guralnik suggests using an exercise like writing, drawing, meditating, or listening to music to create time to let your mind wander and check in with your feelings.

If your communications are especially tense…

Yes, connection is critical, but there’s a marked difference between doing it online versus IRL. “The mere act of being around other people is good for our well-being and we’re feeling the hit of those missed social connections when we just get them from technology,” says Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale and host of The Happiness Lab podcast. Even the absence of banal workplace banter about lunch plans or your weekend is perceptible: when there’s no casual talk, explains Gallagher, all your work interactions become transactional and, therefore, less meaningful. It can also be hard to see people as a whole when you’re not actually around many people at all. “We’re often seeing people through the lens of social media or their political views so we have these two-dimensional versions of each other,” adds Gallagher. Even though socializing poses much more of a challenge right now, prioritizing safe, distanced meet-ups with friends is vital. “The pandemic has also revealed our dependence,” says Guralnik. “Despite our ideals of individualism, it turns out we deeply depend on each other.”

If your heart or mind won’t stop racing…

“A racing heart is a sign that your sympathetic nervous system or ‘fight or flight’ response is activated,” explains Santos. “Our bodies give us one way to shut off this system and that’s through our breath.” Pausing to take some deep belly breaths, or just focusing with intention on your breath for a few moments can be an antidote—and a quick one, at that—for a racing heart or mind. “That simple act can activate our vagus nerve and help us turn on our parasympathetic nervous system, which is focused on ‘rest and digest,’” she adds.

If you can’t shake negative feelings…

The most effective way to shake off negativity, says Santos, is to redirect it by intentionally and repeatedly listing a few things you’re grateful for—and really, it can be anything; your beloved morning cup of coffee qualifies. “Even during challenging times there can still be stuff that brings us joy, and research shows that the simple act of scribbling down three to five things you’re grateful for each day significantly improves your well-being,” says Santos.

If you’re overwhelmed by the uncertainty…

“The definition of anxiety is fear of the unknown and intolerance of uncertainty,” says Gallagher. Between COVID and the election, we are living in a time of peak uncertainty. “When we don’t know, we feel out of control, which, in turn, makes us feel scared and overwhelmed.” Escaping that spin cycle is about being grounded in the present and, says Coor, leaning heavily on daily routines: “You’re always in a cat-like state of readiness when you don’t know what’s coming. So whatever you can make predictable, do it.”

If you just feel stuck…

Gallagher has been telling people to end each day with some non-judgmental observation: taking a few moments to consider what went well and what didn’t, then how to recreate more of the former and minimize the latter going forward. But if the anxiety you’re experiencing is paralyzing and you’re struggling, identify that, accept it, and seek out therapy; the virtual model has actually made it more accessible and convenient than ever. “We’re getting inundated and it’s really great,” says Coor. “Because it’s OK to not be OK. It makes sense that you’re not OK, it’s perfectly normal that you’re not OK.”

Source: vogue.com