As Americans struggle to keep their footing between the jarring left and right hooks of climbing Covid-19 cases and high unemployment – as well as the constant jab of racial inequality, climate change and escalating health care costs – the upcoming election may seem like yet another body blow in a 10-round boxing match.
“Each day we take a beating from politics. … I study this for a living, and sometimes I have trouble coping with the anxiety myself,” said Matthew Feinberg, an associate professor who researches how politics impacts stress and well-being at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.
“We’re seeing this chronic effect, where politics is corresponding with mental health and physical health impairments, and that’s what we think is the bigger issue,” Feinberg said. “It’s not just the election. It’s the constant flow of politics, the negativity of it and how we internalize it on a daily basis.”
It’s unlikely election night will deliver an early KO to the mat, even if we’re bruised enough to wish for one. Record numbers of mail-in and absentee voters have guaranteed that the outcome of the battle for the presidency may take days – or even weeks – to resolve.
Here are five ways to make it to the final bell with your sanity intact.
Set realistic expectations
“Planning and setting expectations about the election is honestly one of the most important things people can do right now,” said Vaile Wright, American Psychological Association’s senior director of health care innovation.
“We’re probably not going to know the winner of the election on Election Day,” Wright said. “People need to get into that mindset right now. Because that’s not typical, that’s not how we usually feel and as humans, we’d like predictability.”
Preparing our emotions for a potentially contentious fight over ballot counts will help reduce anger and anxiety as we wait for election results, experts say. While that process is unfolding, turn to tasks you can accomplish to add to your resilience.
“Grasp on to the things that are under your control,” Wright said. “Do things like voting, volunteering for causes that you care about, and finding meaningful activities that you can bring into you and your family’s life. I think those are gonna be really critical over the next month or two.”
Finding positive ways to express your political opinion can also be good for our mental health, Feinberg said.
“There’s some evidence that people who engage in protests or corrective action that’s not violence feel better after doing so,” he said. “They feel a sense of community, more of a positive sense of identity, and that makes them feel better.”
In fact, the more proactive you can be, the more you will feel in charge, Wright said. She suggests voting as early as possible this week if your state allows you to do so before election day.
“We really do hear people say that voting reduces their stress, because they feel like they’ve acted, so it almost frees them up to disconnect a little bit,” Wright said.
Nature gave us the ability to experience negative emotions for a very good reason – survival. The rush of fight-or-flight hormones like adrenaline prompts us to anxiously look for new information that can help us stay alive.
“Human beings in general evolved to pay lots of attention to negative stimuli,” said Christopher Federico, who directs the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Political Psychology.
Constantly scanning your environment for a saber-toothed tiger made sense back in the day. But apply that human instinct to today’s 24-hour news and social media cycles, and you may find yourself “doomscrolling” – continuously absorbing news and commentary on the election, especially if it drags on and on past Election Day.
“You can think of ‘doomscrolling’ as a function of anxiety – we want more information,” Feinberg said. “But we often end up on a track where we’re just seeking out information that makes us more and more anxious and that might not provide us with an entirely representative view of reality.
“Once we get in that frame of mind, we may not be looking at the world in a completely unbiased and even-handed fashion,” Feinberg added.
“We need to step back and think carefully about what anxiety is doing, and what kind of information it makes us seek out, and how it might make us trust leaders who manipulate perceptions of fear and doubt,” Federico said.
Give yourself a break – literally
One way to do counter doomscrolling and other forms of hypervigilance, experts say, is to turn off the news and avoid your social media feed for at least a few hours every single day.
“Every breaking news story is just a hit of adrenaline that is happening in people’s bodies,” said Tania Israel, a professor in the department of counseling, clinical and school psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Block that hormone rush with self-help techniques, such as getting exercise – preferably in sunlight and nature, which studies show can brighten your outlook.
Exercise brings another benefit: It will improve your sleep quality, one of the best things you can do to ease stress and boost your mood.
Try mediation or deep breathing, experts suggest. Deep breathing realigns the stressed-out part of our bodies, called the sympathetic system, with the parasympathetic, or “rest and restore” system.
Watch or listen to something funny – and share it with your friends and family. It has long been said that “laughter is the best medicine,” and that applies to the anxiety of our times, experts say.
And don’t forget the basics.
“If you’re tired, go to bed, if you’re hungry, eat. If you need to pee, you get up and you go do that instead of answering eight more emails. Many of us are not paying attention to our basic physical needs,” Israel said.
Avoid anxiety apathy
It turns out that negative emotions like anger and anxiety about politics can actually be good for our democracy.
“In the context of politics, we know that a person’s negative emotions, their anger and their moral outrage can propel them to take action, to donate, or volunteer or demonstrate,” said social psychologist Brett Ford, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and the director of the Affective Science & Health Laboratory.
But there is a flip side. It’s also human nature to avoid negative emotions, which can lead to a sort of anxiety apathy.
“No one wants to be angry every day, no one wants to feel sad every day,” said the University of Toronto’s Feinberg. “So the logical thing is to do whatever it takes, psychologically, to rationalize or regulate these emotions so you don’t feel them, because that’s protecting yourself.”
Feinberg and Ford studied that phenomena in politics to see what happened to voter action. They found people who were good at turning off the news and dialing back their anger and anxiety were indeed happier, scoring high on measures of well-being.
The problem? Those people were also more likely to lose their motivation to be a part of the political process.
“They were less likely to take action that is useful for the collective good,” Feinberg said. “They convinced themselves just not to pay attention anymore … which may result in not voting or not being involved (in the election) any longer.”
In a further study, published recently as a pre-print without outside peer review, the duo found that attitude also applied to taking safety precautions against Covid-19.
“Again, people who are really good at rethinking the situation in a way that helps them stay calm, those people do feel less afraid and worried about Covid-19,” Ford said. “Those are also the people who are experiencing the highest levels of mental health and well-being.”
But the people who felt less afraid and worried about Covid-19 were also the “least likely to engage in the health behaviors the CDC is recommending, such as wearing a mask and social distancing,” Ford said.
Strive for the middle ground
Bottom line? Becoming an ostrich with your head in the sand may ease your anxiety, but it likely won’t help you express your political views. Using your anger and anxiety to motivate yourself to action will – but at a potential cost to your mental and physical well-being.
The solution, experts say, lies in moderation.
“Strive to protect yourself from the worst of your negative emotions while still harnessing them to motivate you,” Feinberg said.
One way to do that, Ford said, is to acknowledge your feelings of anxiety and anger without necessarily letting them overwhelm you.
“Emotional acceptance is really about sitting with your feelings,” Ford said. “We know from other work on acceptance that when people just acknowledge their feelings and don’t try to avoid them or push them away, the emotions can dissipate more quickly.”
Doing so opens up opportunities to look for positive ways for personal and political change, which can lead to an increase in optimism.
“By changing their perspective, those people are also feeling more gratitude. They’re feeling inspired, they’re feeling love. And those emotions also predict better mental health,” Ford said.
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And they did it without losing their motivation for political change.
“We find that when when people tend to use that approach in their daily lives, they’re not more likely to take action, but they’re also not less likely,” Ford said. “And they do tend to have better better mental health.”