If just thinking about November 3 makes you break out in hives, you’re not alone. According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association in late 2019, 56 percent of adults in the U.S. cite the upcoming election as a significant stressor in their life. And given the way 2020 has been going, we can’t help but assume that percentage has gone up a bit.
“Normally, elections can cause some stress, but the stakes are higher this time around due to the polarized candidates, hurdles for voting, and the overall state of the country with the pandemic and racial tensions,” explains Dr. Sherry Benton, PhD, psychologist, founder and chief science officer of TAO Connect. In other words, it’s natural to be feeling the election stress on steroids this year.
And with the election just eight weeks away, we have a feeling that anxiety is only going to intensify. So how do we keep from spiraling? Here, two therapists share their best tips and strategies for managing election stress.
1. Set a time limit on consuming news
Watching or reading the news these days can be a slippery slope. It is empowering (and your civic duty) to stay informed, but it’s not healthy to become obsessive about it, says Dr. Benton. She recommends setting a time limit on how much you consume each day. Once you’ve hit that limit, shut the TV off or stop scrolling.
Another good indicator that it’s time to step away from the news? When you find that you’re just re-reading the same information over and over instead of learning anything new, says Rachel Gersten, licensed mental health counselor and cofounder of Viva Wellness. It’s not helpful, especially if you’re reading about negative information again and again.
2. Feel an existential crisis coming on? Try square breathing
If you find yourself worrying about all the worst-case scenarios that could happen if the results don’t go the way you want them to, take a step back. “I’d say take a few deep, slow breaths and remind yourself that you aren’t in that place yet. Ground yourself in what you can do in this moment, on this day, to feel a little less crazed. You can worry about what might happen if or when it actually does,” says Gersten. To calm yourself down, try a breathing technique like square breathing. All you have to do is inhale through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, exhale through your mouth for a count of four, then pause and hold for a count of four. Repeat until you feel yourself start to relax.
3. Write down your catastrophic thoughts
If you’re having trouble detaching from your thoughts of impending doom, try writing them down, then look at them to determine what’s realistic and what isn’t, suggests Dr. Benton. It will take away some of the thoughts’ power once you begin to analyze what’s a real concern and what’s an empty threat. If some of your worst fears actually seem valid, try reminding yourself of everything this country has been through, Dr. Benton says. Thinking about the fact that the United States has survived a civil war, the Great Depression and McCarthyism can be reassuring in these uncertain times.
4. Focus on what you can control
“Anything that helps you feel in control and influential, like donating your time or money to political organizations or volunteering at a phone bank will help,” says Dr. Benton. To get started, head to Google and research organizations that take action on issues you care about, like climate change or women running for office, to see if they’re in need of volunteers or monetary support. The internet is also your best friend in terms of finding phone banks in your area to get involved with. Another easy way to feel like you have some control over the outcome of the election? Make sure you vote. Then, once you’ve taken all the action concrete action you have the time and energy for, focus on letting go and remind yourself that the outcome of this election isn’t totally in within your control, Dr. Benton says.
5. Make a plan for how you’ll cope if the results don’t go the way you’d like
If you’re worried you’ll feel the same way you did after the 2016 election, Gersten recommends making a plan for coping now rather than waiting until you’re in panic mode to figure it out. Think about how you want to manage your emotions in the days and weeks following November 3 if there’s an upsetting outcome. Maybe you want to set up a call with a likeminded friend on November 4 to be sure you’ll have someone to vent to. Or maybe you know yoga makes you feel better, so you tell yourself you’ll get a membership at your local studio for November and December to help you cope. It could be as simple as asking a family member to check in on you once a week after the results to see how you’re doing. Whatever you decide, write down your plan and keep it in a safe place in case you need to reference it.
6. Take a break from social media
These days, it’s easy to feel like every Facebook post, Instagram story and tweet that you look at has something to do with politics. And being hit with that every time you log on can be really draining. Plus, social media can be a hotbed for unproductive debates and inaccurate information, adds Dr. Benton. That’s why she recommends taking a break from it over the coming weeks if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Some signs you might be overdoing it? If you notice your mood feels lower after scrolling through Instagram, or you notice you’re compulsively checking Twitter every ten minutes to see what news is trending. These are indicators that it might be time to put your phone down, or even delete your social media apps for a few days.
7. Draw up rules of the game for talking politics with loved ones
If every phone call with your dad devolves into an unproductive debate on healthcare reform that leaves you feeling exhausted, set some boundaries to yourself and your relationship. Maybe you agree not to discuss political issues until after the election is over, suggests Gersten. Maybe you only discuss hot topics in person and leave the text threads to other things. Or maybe you nix the political talk altogether. This might also mean limiting your time spent with folks who trigger your political anxiety until after November 3, or who won't agree to the "rules of the game."
8. Recalibrate your expectations for tough conversations
If boundaries aren't cutting it, it's time to change your expectations about what you’ll get out of these conversations, says Dr. Benton. Remind yourself that you’re probably not going to change someone’s mind overnight, and that’s OK. If your college friend is dead-set on some wild conspiracy, it's not really within your power to change their mindset.
9. Join a digital support group to talk it out
Joining a support group might help you feel less alone with your election stress. “For some people, [joining a support group] can provide a sense of community. [You] can get suggestions and feedback from other people going through something similar, and a lot of people find comfort in that,” explains Gersten. Since attending in-person meetings isn’t exactly an option for most of us right now, Coa, a new therapy and mental fitness community, has launched a free virtual political anxiety support group series that’s held bi-weekly. The next one will be led by San Francisco-based therapist Laura DeSantis, LPCC, and will take place on October 1 at 4 p.m. ET. Sign up via Eventbrite here.
10. Talk to a therapist about your concerns
As with any other life challenge, working with a therapist can help you get through election season. A good therapist will help you learn new skills to help you combat feelings of stress and anxiety, says Dr. Benton. Therapy can be especially helpful if you have different political views from the people you live with, since it’s a space for you to freely express how you’re feeling about the current climate.