If you’re anticipating Election Day (and night) to be a long, drawn-out, stressful affair, you’re not alone. We’ve been submerged in anxiety for months now and the election is poised to feel like the culmination of it all. Because listen, even if we don’t get a firm answer one way or another that night, it’s still a big night. For a lot of us, it will be impossible to look away—or to feel okay.
But you should still consider making an effort to protect your mental health, especially if you anticipate Election Day will be fraught and upsetting for you. While it’s not possible to completely escape the avalanche of emotions bound to come with November 3rd, there are some things you can do to look after yourself. So we talked to some mental health experts to get their tips.
1. First, there’s no “right” way to spend Election Day.
Let’s get this one out of the way, just because you might be feeling a certain way about how you think you “should” spend Election Day. Maybe you feel bad because you think tuning out would be better for your mental health, but you know you won’t be able to avoid getting sucked in. Or maybe you want to distract yourself by any means possible, but can’t help feeling like you should be engaged.
Here’s the thing: The election is going to happen whether you consume the updates or not, so try to trust your gut when deciding what to do. “Everyone knows themselves best,” Alexa Mieses Malchuk, M.D., M.P.H., a family physician and assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill, tells SELF. (Like many family physicians, Dr. Mieses Malchuk regularly treats patients with mental and behavioral health conditions like depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders.) “For some folks, watching a play-by-play as the election results unfold might help them relax and feel a sense of control over the situation. But other folks are going to need to plan an alternative activity that is fun and engaging to distract them from election night.”
2. You knew I was going to say this, but: Set social media boundaries.
Both experts I talked to for this article—and plenty more experts I’ve been interviewing all election season—pointed to social media as a main contributor to election night stress. And 2020 stress in general. “If you’re already in an anxious or distressed state, social media can amplify those negative emotions that you’re having,” says Dr. Mieses Malchuk. “So I’d say, ideally on election night and maybe even in the days to follow, stay away from social media until you’re in a place to process the things that social media will present to you.”
But, of course, a lot of us hear this sort of thing and just kind of chuckle sadly because we know that’s never going to happen. In that case, think of some boundaries you can put in place to control your social media consumption in small ways. “I always suggest to people to establish a media-free zone in your home,” Amanda Fialk, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., chief of clinical services at The Dorm, an NYC-based treatment center for young adults, tells SELF. That way, if you need a moment to step away from your phone or the news, you have somewhere to go. Even if it’s just the bathroom.
Here are some other quick ideas for boundaries, too:
3. Decide where you’re going to get your news updates.
Speaking of social media, it’s not a great primary source of news. You’ll save yourself a lot of stress (and potential false alarms) if you choose a small handful of trusted places to get your updates. And if you are going to use social media to get quick updates, make sure you pay attention to sources—and read more than the headline.
“If you’re going to be scrolling and scrolling, remember not to look to Twitter or Facebook as fact instead of delving in and understanding where your news is coming from,” says Fialk. “Unreliable news sources only add to anxiety.”
4. If you can’t look away, aim to take tiny, tiny breaks.
A low bar on Election Day is your friend, because a little self-care is better than nothing. “People sometimes set these lofty goals like, ‘I’m not going to go online at all today,’” says Fialk. “Well, if you’ve spent nearly every day of the past 10 years online, that’s not going to happen today. Set a goal that feels like you can accomplish it, even if it’s small, then build on that success.”
Fialk suggests distracting yourself in manageable increments, whether that’s by doing breathing exercises, some other activity, or just trying not to scroll through social media. “If you can only last five minutes, that’s okay,” she says. “Maybe next time you can try 10.”
5. Have a support system, whatever that looks like for you.
You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again. Having people to lean on is great for your mental health. Obviously, that’s a little more complicated amid the pandemic, when our safety restricts our ability to see people IRL. But that’s one upside of technology.
“If somebody is alone and not feeling good about being alone on election night, I’d certainly recommend putting together some sort of Zoom gathering,” says Fialk. If that’s too much, try establishing with friends or loved ones that you can check in throughout the night (or even at certain intervals) via text.
If you don’t have anyone you trust to be your support for the night, that’s okay. Check out some of these resources, including support groups and community-based apps, that can help you connect with other people in the same boat. And if you realize that plugging into social media is your main option for feeling connected to other people, that’s cool, too. Social media has its upsides on election night and you know yourself to weigh the pros and cons.
6. Set boundaries with people in your life, too.
Like we’ve mentioned, everyone’s approach to Election Day will be different. Make sure to check with your people to see what page they’re on. For example, you might not want your friends texting you frantic updates throughout the day when you’re focusing on distracting yourself. If that’s the case, give people a heads up!
“It’s okay to set boundaries with friends and family members who would only add to your anxiety throughout the day,” says Fialk. And you want to make sure you’re not inadvertently adding to other people’s stress, too. So make sure to communicate before live-texting your anxiety spiral to the group chat.
7. Lean into basic self-care.
Ideally, you have some sort of reliable self-care routine that you can lean on through stressful times like Election Day. But if you don’t, that’s okay. Start with the basics: trying to get enough sleep in the days leading up to the election, drinking enough water, eating regular meals and snacks, and getting some movement or time outdoors. “The more that we take care of ourselves, the better that we’re going to feel,” says Fialk. “These things really do mitigate the effects of stress and anxiety.” Same goes for meditation and deep breathing, she adds.
If you want to take it a step further, I love these self-care resources from the University of Buffalo School of Social Work. Filling out this Emergency Self-Care Worksheet ahead of Election Day might be especially useful if you’re not someone who typically thinks about self-care.
8. Schedule your day out ahead of time.
Outlining a routine is a tried and true therapy trick for keeping yourself on track. If you want to spend the day doing relaxing self-care activities and avoiding the news, making a firm plan of what that actually entails will help you avoid getting sucked into a vortex of tempting news updates and social media. “It’s important to set boundaries and rules ahead of time, so an Election Day plan can be huge,” says Fialk. “It can be from the moment you wake up to the moment that you go to bed.”
Just make sure it feels realistic. It’s fine to be honest with yourself and say, “Okay, in the morning, I’ll go for my regular run and only check social media once an hour throughout the day at work, but after 4 PM, I’m giving myself permission to scroll through Twitter until the moment I finally go to sleep.”
9. Find a way to help out, big or small.
The uncertainty of Election Day is a big driving factor of plenty of negative emotions, so it might make a big difference for your mental health to find something you can control. “Taking an active role in something you care about will make you feel better about the things that you have no control over,” says Fialk. That starts with exercising your right to vote, if you’re able, but after that, you might have to create other opportunities to feel in control.
There are virtual volunteer opportunities available, like working on a voter assistance hotline. But your version of helping out might also be something small, like offering to keep your friends updated if you’ll be plugged in anyway or offering childcare to your poll worker friends.
10. Consider not drinking (or cutting back).
Listen, no judgment from me if you’ve been planning to drink to get through election night. I get it. But (and there’s always a but, isn’t there?) it can’t hurt to think about what you’re aiming for by drinking on election night and whether or not you’re accomplishing it. Because if the goal is to numb out your emotions, alcohol might have the opposite effect.
“Alcohol is a depressant and I always have to remind people of that,” says Fialk. “It can actually heighten feelings of sadness and anxiety, and drinking is likely only going to exacerbate the very feelings that you’re trying not to feel.”
Plus, not for nothing, but you might want to look out for Future You, too. Even if you do manage to numb out your feelings that night, you’ll still have to deal with them when you wake up, anyway. “Drinking to cope with distress often means that the next day, that distress will feel worse than it would have if you tried to cope in the moment,” says Dr. Mieses Malchuk.
So, do with that what you will. And hey, if you’re going to drink, at least plan some hangover self-care ahead of time.
11. Get physical.
Don’t worry, I’m not saying you have to make a workout game tied to election coverage (“Do a burpee whenever you feel like screaming!”). But it’s worth noting that getting your heart pumping, even briefly, can help you deal with your distress quickly, so it’s not a bad coping mechanism to have in your back pocket.
“If you feel like your emotions are dialed up too high, doing a very intense but short physical exercise can help bring it back down,” says Dr. Mieses Malchuk. “This might be running in place as fast as you can for 30 seconds.” It may seem a little silly, but some people find even that level of movement can reduce their stress, she explains.
12. Have some backup distractions.
Even if you plan on not distracting yourself so you can pay attention to updates as they roll in, you never know what you might wind up needing. Dr. Mieses Malchuk suggests having a supply of activities (whether that’s a physical self-care kit or a mental list of things you can do) so that you have something to keep your mind engaged if you need it. When in doubt, it’s okay to decide you’ve had enough of election night and go into full distraction mode.
“Under normal circumstances, I don’t think that people have to be so strict in avoiding things that are stressful,” says Dr. Mieses Malchuk. “But this is election night and this one in particular is centered around issues that hit very, very close to home for a lot of people. It’s a time to use coping mechanisms that aren’t going to make the distress any worse.”
13. Lastly, please be kind to yourself.
Because, look, election night might just be kind of a shit show for your mental health. You might wind up disregarding every tip on this list. You might just focus on getting through whatever way you can. And that’s okay.
“Everything that’s going on right now is completely unprecedented,” says Fialk. “I think it’s important to remember that and to be very careful and forgiving with yourself during this time. Nobody is going to do this perfectly.”