What does it mean to have ‘normal emotions’ in the year 2020, anyway? And what does it mean now, with Election Day less than two weeks away? Everyone is handling the anticipation differently. Maybe you’re having trouble sleeping because you’re reflecting on how the new coronavirus pandemic has been handled. Maybe you’re optimistic about the upcoming election and politically engaged—volunteering and phone banking for your favorite local candidate. Or perhaps you’re watching headlines fly across your social media feed each day, and you’re wondering how you’ll make it to November.
“No one really knows what to expect,” Vernessa Roberts, Psy.D., a counseling psychologist, tells SELF. “And that’s been the theme of the whole year.”
It’s true. And thanks to all this relentless uncertainty, it might be hard to pinpoint exactly how you feel—because between the non-stop headlines and the general stress of living through 2020, your feelings may just be all over the place, all the time. Even worse? You might wonder if all those emotions are normal, or valid.
First things first: You are very likely experiencing totally normal emotions right now, whatever it is you’re feeling. So we talked to some mental health experts about what they’re seeing a lot of these days, and to find out what kinds of emotions and feelings are more common than you might expect. Here’s what they had to say. We hope this (incomplete) list provides some comfort—that while none of this is normal, at least your feelings are.
1. You’re overwhelmed and exhausted.
“A common emotion is feeling exhausted,” Cicely Harshom-Brathwaite, Ph.D., a counseling psychologist and mindset coach, tells SELF. But when you think about how challenging this year and this election season has been so far, it’s no wonder you might feel tired. If you’re drained, overwhelmed, and exhausted, it’s okay to limit your social media consumption or put boundaries around how much news you watch. A lot is going on—in your own life and the world—so if you’re feeling this way, taking breaks is a good idea.
2. You’re triggered by things the candidates say and do.
Whether you watched Vice President Mike Pence interrupt Senator Kamala Harris, or you heard President Donald Trump tell white supremacists to “stand by,” a lot of what you’ve witnessed is probably unsettling. “People are feeling triggered by beliefs or rhetoric that reminds them of situations that they have been in or experienced in their lives,” Horsham-Brathwaite explains. “And it brings up lots of painful emotions.”
If you find yourself rattled, don’t ignore it. Acknowledge the feelings coming up, whether by journaling, venting to a friend, or talking it out with a therapist, Roberts suggests. But most of all, remember that it’s reasonable to feel unsettled by genuinely upsetting things, even if they’re unfortunately commonplace.
3. You’re disheartened because things haven’t changed yet.
Many of the issues we’re facing didn’t begin four years ago. So as you gear up to cast your vote, you might also feel a bit hopeless. “We’ve certainly become, as a nation, more aware and more willing to look at the structural nature of inequity, of racism, and of oppression, but at the same time … I’ve had people expressing despair about why change hasn’t already occurred,” Horsham-Brathwaite says.
It is understandable to find yourself disheartened by all the progress that still needs to occur. If possible, try to remember that slow change is still progress, even if we have many miles left to travel.
4. You’re optimistic that change is on the horizon.
The despair is real, but if you have a sliver of “hope that things might change,” you’re not alone, Horsham-Brathwaite explains. People are taking to the streets in protest and spurring cultural conversations. Organizations committed to grassroots work are receiving more funds and attention. The upcoming election—at federal, state, and local levels—can have a real impact on our everyday lives. So if you find yourself humming happily as you nail down your voting plan, you’re well within your right.
5. You’re anxious about all of the uncertainty.
There’s immense comfort in knowing what will happen next, even when the outcome isn’t pleasant. But when you literally can’t predict what will happen, things can feel a bit overwhelming. “Our bodies and minds are developed to get ourselves to safety and to also look out for threat,” Horsham-Brathwaite explains, and uncertainty makes it harder to do that. Often anxiousness occurs when we’re thinking too far ahead, so coming back to the present moment can be helpful. If you’re having a bit of trouble dealing with all of the unknowns, try a few grounding techniques—like deep breathing or rigorous physical activity—to help you return your awareness to what’s happening right now.
6. You’re worried about the safety of your family and friends.
As the election approaches, it’s hard not to think about worst-case scenarios. Many people are “very afraid of what will happen to their loved ones—whether that’s related to their immigration status or their ability to seek medical treatment,” Horsham-Brathwaite says. You may also have concerns about post-election violence and civil unrest (no matter who wins the presidential election). Your concerns aren’t irrational. If you have the energy and resources, consider lending your time and money to organizations working to make the world safer for you and the people you love. And talk through potential post-election safety concerns with your loved ones.
7. You’re distracting yourself at all costs.
Distraction is useful right now. When inundated with things you can’t control, it’s pretty natural to turn your attention elsewhere. “But avoiding feelings and distracting ourselves are all short-term fixes,” Roberts explains. So make sure that you’re also taking time to understand any feelings simmering below the surface. You don’t have to change them, just acknowledge any low-grade sadness, happiness, or apprehension you’re feeling. And, of course, make sure that your distractions aren’t interfering with your ability to live your life.
8. You feel numb.
There is so much happening all the time, every day, and it can become really overwhelming—it’s all a lot to process. So if you’ve stopped having strong reactions, that’s also a common response.“There is so much going on, and some people have just completely disconnected,” Roberts says, adding that some of that might be avoidance. Check in with yourself and acknowledge that you’re feeling a little numb, Roberts suggests. And, if nothing else, consider a self-care plan for Election Day so that your emotions don’t surprise you all at once.
9. You’re kind of excited for Election Day.
Over 42 million Americans have voted already, according to the United States Election Project, so if you see these numbers and you’re excited, we totally get it. If you’re excited because you’re going to make your voice heard at the ballot box, that’s understandable, too. There’s nothing wrong with feeling optimism right now! Just make sure you have your voting plan in place, and you’re prepared to vote safely.
10. You have a sense of impending doom.
For many people, the outcome of the 2016 election came as a shock. “It shattered a lot of people’s assumptions and beliefs,” Horsham-Brathwaite says. So, if you’re looking ahead to 2020 with a sense of impending doom, you could be bracing yourself for another unfavorable and surprising outcome. Ultimately we don’t know what’s going to happen, and uncertainty can be difficult to handle. So dreading the results might make you feel a little more prepared to deal with whatever comes our way.
11. You’re thinking about self-care on election night.
Where are you going to be on Election Night? How are you going to sleep if the results aren’t in? If you’re asking yourself these questions, you’re not alone. “For many of us, election night is going to be fraught as hell—all the anxiety, uncertainty, and fear will have us operating on emotional high alert, and that’s going to take a physical toll,” Anna Borges, senior editor at SELF, writes. So if you’re trying to figure out what you’re going to do, she’s got some really helpful tips. They won’t sway the outcome, but they can help you process whatever surprises might be in store.