There may be a deep chasm between political parties in the U.S. right now, but around 68% of Americans say that the upcoming election is a “significant source of stress” no matter their political affiliation, according to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America 2020 report. It understandably feels terrifying to have a lack of real control over the outcome of the election outside of casting your vote. (And having the right to vote or making sure your vote counts can also be outside of your control in some circumstances). Unfortunately, anxiety can be a direct result of “spending our precious limited conscious attention on what we don’t have control over,” Dave Rabin, M.D., Ph.D., a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who has studied the impact of stress on the body and mind at the University of Pittsburgh, tells SELF.
That’s not to say having anxiety about this moment in history (or anything, really) is your fault because you’re focusing on the wrong things. It’s human nature to spend time worrying about things we don’t have control over because it means we can’t plan for any negative outcomes that could arise from those circumstances, SELF previously explained.
So, if you’re battling fear around the election, welcome to the club. Here, Dr. Rabin and other mental health experts share some insight into what they’re telling their clients who are terrified too.
1. Your feelings are valid.
Jeffery Cohen, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and instructor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, says that he aims to provide validation for his clients. “Offering validation, which is to communicate that a person’s experience is understandable and makes sense, can help decrease election stress,” Cohen tells SELF.
So, in case you don’t have someone in your life to say it, take it directly from him: “It makes sense to feel stressed out about the election. So many people are understandably feeling that way. This year’s election is occurring amid the COVID-19 pandemic and pandemic of racism and police brutality.” While your fears being valid doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek mental health support if they’re completely overwhelming your ability to take care of yourself, hopefully you can find a bit of comfort in the knowledge that feeling terrified right now is, unfortunately, a totally natural reaction.
2. You aren’t alone.
Dr. Rabin believes that, along with acknowledging their fears, it’s essential for people to know that they’re not alone in them. “No matter who wins or loses the election, it’s going to be an emotional week for everyone, both good and bad. Even if your chosen candidate wins, that doesn’t mean that you’re not going to feel some negative emotions,” he says. “This is out of everyone’s hands, so it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.”What does being prepared look like? Excellent question…
3. Create an Election Day (or week or month) strategy.
David Spiegel, M.D., associate chair of psychiatry at Stanford University, recommends planning for both the best and worst outcomes. It’s basically a good day/bad day plan specifically for the election. “If the outcome is clear and in your favor, make plans for how to celebrate with loved ones and via distant socializing,” Dr. Spiegel tells SELF. “If the outcome is bad or even potentially dangerous, make plans for safety for yourself and your family. Knowing what you can and will do is reassuring.” Your plan should include practical things, like building in time for sleep and figuring out how to stay updated on the events unfolding without becoming overwhelmed. It should also include emotional things, like who you’ll turn to for comfort if necessary and reminding yourself that getting into Facebook fights with loved ones across the political aisle won’t help you feel better. Here’s SELF’s guide to making a post-election self-care plan.
4. Be extremely strategic about your news consumption.
“Don’t watch every news story, or even any. Ask a friend or family member to summarize the news for the day,” Afiya Mbilishaka, Ph.D., professor and head of the psychology program at the University of the District of Columbia, tells SELF. In addition to limiting your social media intake, TV watching, and other news consumption that can become really stressful, Mbilishaka has been recommending that her clients set timers on social media apps to limit screen time. Let’s be honest: Doom scrolling could last for hours. For instance, some iPhone and Google Android devices have tools built in that can limit how much time you spend on your phone.
With that said, limiting your news intake in this way can be so much easier said than done. For you, the best course might be to simply accept that on Election Day, you’re going to be all over social media with the TV constantly on in the background, and planning your self-care accordingly. Here are some tips for doing just that.
5. Figure out which healthy coping mechanisms actually resonate with you.
Look, it can obviously be tempting to try to drown out negative emotions with, say, heaping glasses of wine. But, depending on the substance in question and how much you have, relying on this kind of habit for stress relief or self-care might just make you feel worse, says psychiatrist Dario LaRocca, M.D. So, ideally, you would find some stress reduction techniques you know you can rely on that won’t result in something like a terrible hangover. LaRocca suggests exercise, journaling, and meditation as great possible options, but there are really so many ways you can go about trying to de-stress in a physically and mentally restorative way. This isn’t to say you can’t stray from these healthy coping mechanisms—no one’s perfect—but it’s good to have them at your disposal.
6. Do your best to remain present.
A lot of the fear around the election is tied to uncertainty about the future. To combat that, Cohen advises his clients to practice mindfulness. “To a large extent, mindfulness is the practice of controlling one’s mind by controlling focus. Imagine an untrained puppy that runs around everywhere—that is a bit like the untrained mind,” he says. Being mindful of the present moment—whether by doing some mindful meditation, thinking of what you control right this second, or tapping into your senses to immerse yourself in your surroundings—can help you avoid anxious thought spirals of doom.
7. Tell yourself, “My thoughts are just thoughts.”
Catastrophic thinking (which essentially means ruminating on the worst-case scenario) is enough to make you feel hopeless, or even keep people from getting to the polls, Jaime Coffino, Ph.D., M.P.H., a clinician at New York Anxiety Treatment and a postdoctoral research fellow at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, tells SELF. In response, Coffino tells her clients, “When you are worried about worst-case outcomes, it is important to distance yourself from your thoughts and understand that they are just thoughts. We have thousands of thoughts every day, and they are not all true. It is helpful to focus on the present and not assume that the worst outcome will come true.”
So, next time you find yourself convinced that the absolute worst thing you can imagine is 100% going to happen, try to remind yourself that your thoughts aren’t facts. And if what you envision as the worst outcome does in fact happen, whether related to this election or anything else, try to remember that two things: You’re allowed to feel your feelings, and you may be more resilient than you think, even if you shouldn’t have to be.