Against the backdrop of an already very difficult year, Americans are right now facing one of the most adversarial elections in the history of U.S. politics. The collective anxiety of this nation is palpable: Conflict is high, mutual understanding is low, and people on all sides of the aisle are feeling tough emotions like fear, anger, and hopelessness.
Interestingly, the election was already stressing us out even before the pandemic, racial violence, and other upending events of this year. In February, a Gartner study reported that 47 percent of workers felt the election had impacted their ability to get work done. A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association at the end of 2019 found that 56 percent of U.S. adults identified the upcoming presidential election as a significant stressor in their lives; a fall 2020 update to that poll puts the number now at 68 percent.
The reasons we’re especially stressed this election season are too numerous to list, but I’ll name a few important causes. First, we’re already feeling drained by the events of this year. In a nationwide survey conducted in May by Modern Health, almost half of respondents said they have felt more stress and anxiety during COVID-19 than at any other time in their lives—so when it comes to coping with election stress, this year we’re not drawing from a full well.
Second, the stakes are high for Americans right now. In part, that’s from the ongoing crises impacting our daily lives, like record unemployment and economic instability. Almost 25 percent of Americans experienced food insecurity in 2020. Ongoing racial injustice and trauma continue to impact the Black community. For example, levels of anxiety and depression spiked among Black Americans following the killing of George Floyd by law enforcement, and by July an estimated one in four Black Americans was struggling with anxiety and depression. Non-white Americans are likelier to contract and to die from COVID-19 than white Americans, and the disparities are getting worse as the disease rages on.
More Americans than ever are feeling the effects of climate change and environmental destruction: One in seven experienced dangerously poor air quality this year due to wildfires, and almost 90 percent of the country’s Eastern and Southern shores have handled a tropical storm warning during one of the worst hurricane seasons on record.
And there are other persistent issues at play that deeply affect individual mental and physical health, like the growing wealth gap, women’s reproductive rights, access to health insurance, and immigration policy. We know the outcome of the election can worsen or lighten our burdens, and we’re worried over what we might gain or lose.
Last, from a brain science perspective, election stress has a lot to do with the brain’s resistance to uncertainty. For basic safety, our brains want to know about everything around us, and we consistently expend energy trying to predict unknowable outcomes. In fact, research suggests that intolerance of uncertainty is a central feature of diagnosable anxiety disorders.
Combined with the fact that we’re stuck at home consuming a lot of news and media, this election cycle is one for the record books. How can we cope?
Tips for Coping with Election Stress
Limit your media intake. Too much news exposure can have negative consequences for mental health. Establish boundaries around exposure, like setting a schedule and time limit. If you know that reading or watching the news heightens your stress, plan for a de-stressing activity immediately after. And don’t check the news just before bed or right when you wake up.
Stay in the present moment. It’s easy to think of mindfulness as a reactive solution to stress, but putting in the effort to develop a regular practice over time can have major benefits for mental health. Start small with a daily practice of just one to five minutes and build up over time. (Try these five free exercises ranging in length from two to 10 minutes.)
Focus on what you can do. While you cannot single-handedly control the outcome of the election, you can make a meaningful contribution to the things that matter to you. Helping a local ballot initiative may remind you that national politics is not the only sphere that matters. Volunteering to be a poll worker might prompt feelings of goodness about democracy (bonus points: volunteering is good for mental health). And of course, vote. Studies suggest that participating in political activities like voting can relieve psychological distress.
Distract yourself. Rather than waiting until you already feel stressed, proactively schedule two kinds of positive activities into your day: Pleasurable activities like watching a movie, playing with your dog, or reading, and “mastery activities” that will give you a sense of accomplishment—like paying a bill, tidying a room, or emailing a family member you haven’t seen in a while. Often, your mood will improve after engaging in an activity you value.
Accept that you’re doing the best you can. This advice applies to almost everything you’re trying to do during the pandemic—like working, parenting, exercising, and socializing. Our competing demands, new norms, and limited reserves can leave many of us feeling like we’re failing on all fronts—civic duties included. Contribute when you can, but take a deep breath and let it go when you cannot.
Ask for help when you need it. Check in with yourself to gauge if your stress feels out of control. Are you losing sleep, focus, or appetite? Is your anxiety impacting your job or relationships? If so, ask for help, and consider therapy or coaching. A therapist can help with clinical diagnoses like depression and severe anxiety, while a coach might be useful for stress management, habit change, or setting goals. Ask your employer what mental health benefits they provide.
In the survey mentioned above, almost 80 percent of respondents felt that “times are tough, but I know we’ll all get through this.” While asking for help, practicing mindfulness, and scheduling positive distractions are all important, so is focusing on what we do have. The last tip: Choose to shift some attention away from what’s at stake and onto our collective resiliency. Cultivate feelings of gratitude and hope and take comfort in sentiments like this one—it’s just good mental health.