BY ALIYAH VINIKOOR, LICSW, MENTAL HEALTH COUNSELOR AT JFS
This 2020 election season would have been a stressful one even during “normal” times—after all, we live in an age of hyper-partisanship, with mounting distrust, hate and fear between our two main political parties. However, given the current context of the pandemic—with its daily uncertainties, social crises and whiplash-inducing news cycles—it’s understandable that according to a recent survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, 68% of Americans are feeling significantly stressed by this presidential election. Additionally, marginalized groups who were already facing social inequities have become even more vulnerable during the pandemic—raising the stakes for November 3.
If you find yourself experiencing “election stress disorder,” please know you’re not alone. You can also get help. Talk to your friends, family members, community or counselor (if you have one) about your fears. Find an outlet by taking action or doing something meaningful. Reconnect to your full humanity by doing things that remind you of your strength and resilience.
Here are some tips for coping during this crisis (or, really, any unusually stressful time):
Opposite Action: One of my favorite therapeutic skills is that of “opposite action.” When feeling overwhelmed, very often we’ll have an emotional urge that actually does more harm than good: We want to isolate when depressed, act out when angry, self-blame or hide when filled with guilt or shame. These are conditioned, negative coping responses that can be short-circuited through deliberate attempts to act opposite to your emotional urge. In other words, if the election has you feeling so down that you spend most of the day in bed, try to reach out to a friend or go for a walk. If you find yourself “doomscrolling” and sending yourself into a panic, put down your phone and go look at the sky. Noticing your automatic reactions to a situation—and then choosing to take “opposite action” to do something more wholesome—can be a wonderful way to gain a sense of control and reset your nervous system.
Find Stability: When our nervous systems are out of whack (either hyperactive or stalled out), there are some tried-and-true ways to come back into a more regulated state of being. All of these involve getting out of our heads and grounding ourselves in the present moment:
- Movement: Attending to your physical needs when your mind is in overdrive is a great way to calm and center. Drink water, eat, nap, put ice packs on the back of your neck or wrists, do some quick exercises (jumping jacks, push-ups or progressive muscle relaxation).
- Distract yourself: Count backwards from 100 in intervals of 4, turn on your favorite show or song, watch videos of the little ones in your life. Find something that brings joy—or at least absorbs all of your attention.
- Get outside: Nature can be a powerful healer for many of us. Try to connect in some way to the natural world every day, whether that’s going for a walk outdoors, looking at the sky, visiting a body of water, digging your hands in the earth (dirt therapy is a thing!) or bird watching.
- Center yourself: Practice mindfulness with box breathing, bring attention to where your body is connected to the ground, name all of the colors you see in your surroundings, smell essential oils, listen to a meditation, sing or chant. In other words, engage your senses and orient yourself to the present moment.
Do Instead of Dwell: When faced with uncertainty, it’s normal to try to “logic” ourselves out of a problem. However, in situations beyond our control, thinking won’t necessarily help. Spinning (obsessive thoughts about the present), ruminating (obsessive thoughts about the past) and “future-tripping” or catastrophizing (obsessive thoughts about the future) can actually keep us locked in a heightened state. Instead of dwelling on fears by letting your mind run wild, ask yourself if there are any action steps you can take to improve the situation and/or your mental health. Can you get active in a campaign? Call your representatives? Sign a petition? Anxiety functions to make us feel powerless; doing something – anything – can help empower and bring us back into healthy coping.
Create a Plan: While the results of the election are beyond our control, what we can control is how we approach the day. Determine your voting plan before November 3: If you haven’t yet received your ballot, verify that the board of elections has your correct voter registration information. Decide whether you’ll be mailing in your ballot or dropping it off at a dropbox – and which one. When will you complete it by? Read through the instructions thoroughly before filling out your ballot to ensure you complete it correctly. You’ll also want to make a plan for getting election results. Will you be watching result coverage on TV or reading real-time updates online? Who will you be with? If alone, who can you call for support? Or would it be better for you to wait until there’s a fuller picture the next morning?
Think through all of your options and which would be best for your mental health – knowing that what you think might be most helpful now could change on election day. Finally, prepare for the possibility that we might not have a clear winner on November 3 or immediately thereafter. In the case of a drawn-out count, have a plan in place to manage any ongoing stress. If you’re currently experiencing significant election-related anxiety and not seeing a therapist, now would be a good time to find someone who is right for you.
Control Your Media Consumption: As mentioned above, the pace of the news can create its own anxiety. While it’s important to be informed, staying constantly connected can lead to unhealthy dwelling. Try to “titrate” your news intake by limiting the number of times a day you check on current events. Some recommend checking no more than three times a day. Try to stay off the news before bed—limiting screen time at night is healthy for many reasons (such as promoting sleep hygiene) but is especially important if it’s mostly taken up by news consumption. Turn off notifications, if you can—the frequent pings of our phones and computers can create their own Pavlovian trigger—and see if you can remove addictive apps like Twitter and Facebook from your phone to create another barrier to accessing this content.
None of these strategies will work 100% of the time. It’s normal to have moments of panic, to feel lost or hopeless—or to feel like you’re not functioning at your best or most productive. That’s fine. Please extend some grace to yourself during this time. And if you feel like you’re struggling and need extra support, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional. That’s what we’re here for.
If you need mental health support right now, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or (206)-861-3152. JFS is here to help, and we offer our services on a sliding scale. We also accept insurance. You can also visit our Counseling & Addiction Services webpage here for more information, as well as our Project DVORA (domestic violence services) page here.