By Sara Radin
Are you experiencing worry or panic, or uneasiness about what the future holds? On edge about the polarized battle between the incumbent presidential nominee Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, two powerful figures that could determine what the next four years of our lives look like? Do you find yourself either avoiding television and social media, or doomscrolling until the wee hours of the night? Well, you’re not alone.
That uncomfortable thing you’re feeling right now could be election anxiety, something many of us are experiencing at heightened levels. I’m personally waiting for my stress to reach fever pitch — or for my emotions to straight-up explode like a soda bottle that’s been violently shaken and unopened for an extended period of time. For my own sake, and hopefully yours, too, I turned to the pros to get to the bottom of those emotions, and how best to manage them before and beyond Election Day.
What is election anxiety?
Election anxiety is not fake news. While it is not an official diagnosis in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), it is a way to explain the “intense level of election-related stress so much to the point where hearing words such as ‘vote’ or ‘debate’ can trigger feelings of stress,” according to the licensed clinical social worker Elizabeth Beecroft. The founder of Mentl.Sesh, a digital platform she created with the goal of normalizing the topic of mental health by having down-to-earth conversations and meeting people where they’re at, Beecroft tells MTV News that this strain of mental strain “is a valid thing because the results of any election could influence the directory of our lives or of our country and how our lives are therefore affected because of that.”
Symptoms are similar to that of general anxiety — think dry mouth, sweating, racing heartbeat, shaking, difficulty sleeping through the night, agitation, irritability, restlessness, hypervigilance, trouble concentrating, excessive worry or fear, racing thoughts, and nausea — but, Beecroft explains, what triggers them are thoughts or experiences related to the election, as well as the uncertainty of what’s to come. Some of her clients have experienced nightmares “almost as if they’re reliving past traumas,” she says. She’s even had election anxiety herself.
Election anxiety looks different for everyone, Will Osei, PhD, points out. “It varies on your baseline level of anxiety and general ability to manage stress.” Patients with low anxiety levels may have a few restless nights after a debate or be increasingly irritable with people in their lives, especially if they do not share political views. Patients with higher anxiety levels may worry to the point of having difficulty concentrating on anything else. “They may even catastrophize and feel like there is no hope for the future,” Osei says. “It is also not uncommon for people to even suffer from panic attacks due to election anxiety.”
The growing sense of polarization between Republicans and Democrats, the right and the left, can contribute to this experience. That may be, in part, because it adds weight to people’s interpersonal relationships. “It has become quite isolating to have to decrease or stop talking to family or friends because of opposing viewpoints,” says marriage and family therapist Patrice N. Douglas. “They also feel that, because tensions are so high, they must avoid speaking about their viewpoint to avoid confrontation or fear of being hurt by others.”
COVID-19 is already increasing anxiety levels.
With the isolation caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the Center for Disease Control and other health organizations have noted a dramatic increase in the diagnoses of mental health disorders. In June, a survey of adults over the age of 18, over 40 percent of respondents said they suffered from a mental or behavioral health condition, and the percentage who reported suicidal ideation was significantly higher among young people aged 18 to 24, minorities, and essential workers. Furthermore, in order to stay social while observing social distancing measures, we often resort to social media for a sense of belonging and community. And right now, that can add to the pressure. “Currently, the media is flooded with information about the election that can be very triggering for some, which essentially can be a domino effect,” Beecroft says.
Osei adds that the pandemic has compounded election-related anxiety in particular with things like social distancing, mask-wearing, and general safety measures moving from being a neutral issue to a political one. “It is now a political stance on mask-wearing and the degree we choose to acknowledge the risk it proposes.” He believes the election outcome will directly impact the future course of this disease.
But don’t worry! You can manage election anxiety.
November 3 is inching closer, and Osei encourages everyone to develop a coping and resiliency plan in the days coming and following Election Day. “Coping is how we overcome difficulties, while resiliency is the capacity to recover quickly from problems.” The first part of the plan should focus on being more mindful and present-focused. “No one knows what will happen tomorrow, so the emotional energy spent thinking about it obsessively is wasted,” he says. Instead, focus on doing at least one thing you love each day. “Take a few minutes to enjoy a favorite snack slowly, walk to a park on your lunch break, or call a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while.”
He suggests swapping the doomscrolling for healthier distractions. “Streaming services and social media, while effective at distracting, don’t provide much in the way of mental stimulation.” Instead, he recommends practicing or starting a hobby. “Many people have taken up indoor gardening, painting, or started playing an instrument during the pandemic. These are all healthy to develop a skill and plan for future success.” And don’t forget about taking care of your physical body. “Being inside requires a little more creativity, but a quick search results in a laundry list of home workouts and easy-to-make meals.”
Try to keep up with the basics as much as you can: exercising regularly, eating healthily, drinking water, meditating, and creating a sleep hygiene routine. If you find it challenging to maintain a routine right now, don’t punish yourself; instead, try finding an accountability partner who can help keep you in check.
Setting boundaries is also a key ingredient to a solid self-care regimen. “Try to not binge on election news, unplug from social media, set boundaries with other people who may trigger stress or who don’t respect your boundaries,” Beecroft says. Unfollow social media accounts that trigger you or overly post, and take breaks from it by placing your phone in another room or deleting the apps off your phone for a while. Mental pauses, in general, are important. “If you’re working and often experience daily stressors outside of the election, take breaks and give your mind a vacation,” Beecroft recommends.
What about Election Day itself?
On Election Day, Beecroft says to try and maintain healthy routines, whether that be morning coffee or tea, exercise or meditation, or eating a balanced breakfast. “Be aware of heightened emotions and any triggers that could lead to symptoms of anxiety such as watching the news, conversations with people who might not be on the same page as you, or could potentially lead to stressful conversations,” she says. Make time for yourself on Election Day and check in with your support systems.
Moderation is the keyword when it comes to social media, Osei says, since the news cycle is sure to be a rollercoaster, given Trump’s insinuations he may not concede to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose and reports of voter suppression already swirling. “It probably would not be a great idea to ride a physical roller coaster all day, so the same rule applies to an emotional rollercoaster.”
“Only check the news for 30 minutes a day,” Douglas says. “Due to the pandemic and such, we most likely will not have the full results on the day so pick three times in a day to check updates for 10 minutes.” Your whole day doesn’t need to be consumed with the election, so take a walk, and get your body moving, call or Zoom a friend or family and have a conversation, whether it is sharing about your anxiety surrounding the election or talking about the latest TikTok. “Sometimes, we need to be mindful of isolation and remember that we have people around us to love and support us.”
Self-care is just as important after Election Day.
All outcomes are possible — whether Trump wins the presidency, Biden wins the presidency, or there’s no immediate winner at all — and Osei says we should prepare by imagining all scenarios, identifying emotions you might feel, and come up with a plan as to how you’d manage them. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in each situation then practice relaxing after. Write your plan down. While things are unpredictable, remember that life will continue regardless of the outcome. “We all will have to get our minds in a good place,” Beecroft says. Whatever you do, try not to focus or dwell on feelings of overwhelm because it can make it harder for us to manage them. And lastly, have your self-care tools always at the ready; your mental well-being extends far past an election cycle.