2020 is one for the history books. Years from now, children will be learning about all that took place this year. Since March, much of our time has focused on COVID-19 and how to deal with its repercussions. Most North Americans had to pivot on a dime when it became clear that this was indeed a severe pandemic. So much stress. So much anxiety. So much uncertainty.
And now those in the U.S. are on the brink of an election. One that is also riddled with uncertainty, even with a long history of elections to draw on. This one is different. People are more polarized politically than before. In 2016, those who wanted a different outcome were devastated. It became a tension point for an array of relationships. Spouses, siblings, friends, co-workers became overwhelmed by the impact of this election. Emotions ran high, dividing friends and family members in an unprecedented way. Many unfriended their social media connections over it. Some considered calling off their weddings.
As a marriage and family therapist, I witness the anxious thoughts around this election, holding space for the uncertainty and likely delay as ballots tally past election day. Most of my clients feel like it is "hard to breathe right now." One person describes feeling like "a balloon where someone is slowly releasing the air." Self-care has sunk to a level that feels out of reach for so many. And yet, it is more important than ever to engage in healthy habits. The duality of a pandemic and a major election has raised us to a new level of "OMG."
One kind of certainty, wherever your politics fall, is that only one party can win the presidential election, and those results will be unwelcome by many. The initial reaction will most certainly resemble that of fight, flight, or freeze. In fact, many declare they will move out of the country should their party lose. It is not that simple. Uprooting one's life is complicated, costly, and can have unforeseen consequences that are not as "wonderful" as one can imagine.
Whatever the outcome of the election, we must find healthy ways to manage our feelings around it. Remember, we are still in a pandemic that has already raised our anxiety and cortisol levels to new levels. The election's uncertainty will linger past November 3rd as the country and world-at-large wait on the edge of our seats for final results in the various elections. On top of that, the tensions of COVID continue to hang in the air. Couple the election with a pandemic where the numbers are still growing, and your outcome is anxiety and depression, an understandable response to feeling a lack of control.
It is hard to sit with the discomfort of anxiety and depression. You may feel on edge most days and have trouble sleeping. How will you handle the outcome if your candidate loses? It may be unimaginable to think of four years with an undesirable candidate. This year alone has taken such a toll on us. We have changed how we live, work, socialize, and function in our communities. Individually, each of these is enough. However, when they all converge, we are facing significant mental health concerns.
Now more than ever, we must pay attention to our stress, managing what we can, and letting go of what is out of our reach. Reminding ourselves of the stages of grief can be helpful. The powerlessness felt when we lose someone near, and dear to us is similar to other losses. At some point, we move to acceptance but not without experiencing denial, anger, bargaining, and depression first. If we try to skip these stages, we become stuck and, in turn, lose out on the simple day-to-day life moments that can give us joy. In any kind of loss, acceptance doesn't mean we are no longer grieving; it means we have come to accept that things can never exactly be as they once were, and we can re-engage in life more fully.
We can enact certain behaviors to manage our anticipatory grief around uncertainty in the pending and post-election period, along with our COVID concerns. Here are some tips for managing pre- and post-election stress during the pandemic.
1. Set Reasonable Expectations
Make sure that you are setting reasonable expectations for yourself as well as others. If you know that someone in your life differs from you on political lines, don't expect a different outcome. Set your expectations to a level that allows you to manage your anxious feelings. For example, if your loved one is unabashedly open about his/her/their political beliefs, do not expect anything but just that. In such situations, I tell my clients to "zero out your expectations."
2. Set and Maintain Boundaries
Establishing boundaries with others is the key to emotional balance. When you set a limit, you let others know what you can or cannot handle emotionally. Keep in mind that you are not asking someone for permission; you are clearly stating what you need to feel safe. Concerning political beliefs, be sure to pay attention to how you feel about participating in anything that feels triggering. If, for example, you have a friend or family member who historically disregards your boundary, you can say “no” to situations that he/she/they are attending.
3. Practice Self-Care
While self-care may look different than in the past, it is essential to emotional well-being. With so much anxiety in the air, you may find it hard to keep up with the practice of self-care. Start with self-compassion. These are unprecedented and difficult times. A few self-care items that can improve your mood include drinking enough water, going for a walk, listening to your energy needs – don't overdo it right now. If you need to rest, take a nap, or aim to be in bed at a reasonable hour. Rest and proper hydration are essential to survival. If you can do more, do it. Self-care is about knowing what you need at various times in your life. It may look different during trying times.
4. “Name it to Tame it”
In the therapy room, I often tell clients they need to "name it to tame it." This technique helps with learning assertive communication. By externalizing our concerns, we provide an opportunity for discussion. In the case of heated political issues, it helps to respectfully state concerns. If things get too complicated, use your boundaries to let someone know the conversation no longer feels emotionally safe.
5. Reframe Stress by Looking for an Opportunity
The stress of so much uncertainty can be consuming while also providing a chance to be creative and learn something new. One way to cope with anxious feelings is through healthy distractions. For some, that can be cleaning, cooking, running, or painting. Whatever it is, make sure it is something that will bring positivity to your life.
6. Don't Consume Media Junk Food
We know that a healthy diet is good for us, and sometimes we eat the cake or cookie anyway. That is ok, as long as it isn't your everyday habit. The same is true for your media diet. Compulsively checking your phone or allowing yourself to get pulled into social media posts is not a healthy media diet. Checking the polls every 10 minutes will not change the outcome. Take breaks from your phone or computer and make sure you are reading from reputable sources.
Finally, if your feelings are overwhelming you and disrupt your life, reach out to a mental health professional, such as a marriage and family therapist, for support. Whatever your beliefs and preferences, we need to connect with others who can validate our concerns without judgment.
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Vanessa Bradden, LMFT