A psychologist offers 10 tips to manage the uncertainty and stress of election aftermath
Well-meaning advice for people freaking out about current events often includes encouragement to be patient, stay calm and keep the faith… but how on Earth are you supposed to do that amid the insanity of 2020?
As a practicing clinical psychologist and professor who studies how to manage anxiety and tolerate uncertainty, I offer 10 suggestions to make it through this highly stressful election period.
1. Put the phone down!
While it is tempting to stay glued to your devices during this time, the never-ending doomscrolling and screen-refreshing becomes overwhelming and keeps you in a state of tension and constant vigilance. The excessive consumption of news and social media predicts poorer long-term mental health during times of crisis.
Plan some breaks where you can engage in other activities that take your mind off politics and the uncertainties we face, and allow things to feel a little more normal for a while.
2. Uncertainty doesn't equal catastrophe
It's hard not to know things – outcomes of elections, for instance. But not knowing shouldn't mean that you assume the worst-case scenario has occurred. When you're anxious (as many in the U.S. are right now), you tend to assign threatening meanings to ambiguous situations, but this tendency is neither accurate nor helpful. Jumping to catastrophic conclusions is like setting off a series of false alarms that keep you on edge and exaggerate your sense of threat.
3. Don't retreat into bed
The feeling of deep disappointment about election results you don't like, or apprehension about upcoming results, can trigger a desire to withdraw and hole up. While that response is natural, it tends to be counterproductive. Staying engaged in activities that give you a sense of accomplishment, pleasure or meaning can make managing this time far less painful.
4. Remember it's happened before
While in many ways it is true that 2020 is unique and unprecedented, it's also the case that human beings tend to be remarkably resilient, even in the face of tremendous stress and trauma. This difficult time will not last forever. Things won't magically all get better, but time will move forward, this situation will change and you will keep putting one foot in front of the other.
5. Don't go through this time alone
While the pandemic means you need to remain physically distant from others, this should not mean staying socially or emotionally distant. When people experience acute stress, they cope much better if they have social support.
So reach out and stay connected – whether that means texting about the latest vote count with a friend or purposefully taking a break from ruminating on current events (it's a great chance to deeply discuss how you each feel about the new season of “The Mandalorian").
6. Stay regular
No, I am not referring to your bowels – maintain a regular and healthy eating, sleep and exercise pattern. While recommendations for self-care may seem unimportant, attending to those basic bodily needs can go a long way toward keeping your resources sufficiently replenished so you can meet the high demands of this time. There is increasing evidence that poor sleep is closely connected to many mental and emotional health difficulties.
So stop refreshing your feed in the wee hours and try to sleep.
7. Help others
This may feel like an odd time to be asked to support others when you feel so depleted yourself, but helping others is linked to benefits in your own mental health.
Moreover, it provides a sense of control. There's so much during this time that you cannot control – there is no magic wand that speeds up vote counting in those critical contested races or makes senate run-offs in January come sooner. But taking action to improve things now for the people around you both helps others and reminds you that you can make a difference in meaningful ways.
So, bake cookies to drop off on the doorstep of the friend who is quarantined. Offer to take an item off a work colleague's overwhelming to-do list. If you're in a position to help, make a donation to a cause you care about. It's a win-win.
8. Take a breath
Each person is different in what helps them to relax or feel more centered. Focusing on and slowing down your breathing, for instance, can help keep you grounded in the present moment and reduce the spiral of upsetting thoughts about what might come next.
For many people, online mindfulness exercises or relaxation recordings can make a big difference. Check out online mental health programs that have been reviewed by experts and pick the resource that's right for you.
9. Offer compassion to yourself
The combination of “COVID-19 brain" plus “election brain" (along with the pain and losses of the last eight months) means few of us will be at our best right now.
There's a lot of room between performing at 100% of your usual capacity and climbing into bed and hiding under the covers for days on end. Personally, I'm trying to average 80%. People managing greater homeschooling, economic, health, discrimination and other challenges at this time than I am may shoot for a lower percentage.
No one is making it through this time unscathed, so kindness to ourselves and others is desperately needed.
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10. Reach out if you need additional help
If recommendations 1-9 aren't cutting it, there are lots of resources to help people through this difficult period:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
- Find a therapist
- Find culturally competent mental health care
- Try an app focused on managing COVID-19 stressors, such as COVID Coach
- Use my research team's free intervention to reduce anxious thinking: MindTrails (part of an online study)
Be patient, stay calm and keep the faith is a tall order. I'll be happy if I can get most of the way there.