How To Deal With Election Anxiety

With the upcoming election, anxiety is showing up as a bipartisan issue. This year has thrown us all curveballs. With the global pandemic, economic hardships and pivots that many Americans have had to face, it’s no surprise that the American Psychological Association recently found that more than two-thirds of U.S. adults are feeling stressed out by the upcoming election.

Elections can often polarize our communities, and this year is no exception. When our beliefs become polarized, it’s hard to lean in, listen and find our common humanity. This can lead to disconnect in our relationships and increased isolation — both risk factors for mental health challenges such as anxiety.

Anxiety can look like constant worrying, hypervigilance, tunnel vision, catastrophizing, and irritability and can even show up as physical symptoms like feeling on edge, headaches, stomachaches, difficulty sleeping and more. While these symptoms can appear for a variety of reasons, many Americans have experienced an increase in these symptoms during this election season.

If you feel fear, you’re not alone. In fact, we’re all wired for it. Fear may not feel great, but it actually has a purpose. At its core, fear’s job is to protect us. When fear is triggered by something it sees as a threat, it can turn on an entire system in our bodies called the fight, flight, or freeze response. The goal of this system is to help focus our energy in an effort to keep us safe. 

Fear and anxiety can produce similar symptoms — so what’s the difference? Fear is a reaction to a clearly identified threat, and anxiety can show up even if the threat isn’t clear. For example, if you’re driving and you see a car swerve in front of you, the dial on your fear response might turn up — and then slowly turn down once you feel safe. If you’re driving and find yourself ruminating and worrying about the outcomes of the upcoming election, that’s anxiety. 

So, what can we do about election anxiety? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Name it to tame it. 

Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, coined the phrase “name it to tame it.” He found that when we slow down and name the feeling we are having, that helps regulate our emotions. So maybe you’re reading this article right now and thinking, “Gosh, maybe what I’ve been feeling lately isanxiety related to the election!” Just naming and acknowledging the experience is a great first step. 

2. Respond to your anxious thoughts with compassion. 

Now that we’ve flexed the mindfulness muscle by noticing and naming the thought, we can respond in a more productive way. Try saying: “I’m having the thought that _______. Thank you, brain, for this data — some pieces are helpful, some of it is unrealistic or not helpful. The way you’re delivering this data is probably going to lead me to spiral and suffer. So, I’m going to take what’s helpful and move forward.”

I know this might sound weird or awkward at first, but externalizing the anxious thoughts or images and creating space between you and them has been proven to be highly effective in changing the way we respond in really meaningful ways. When you name anxiety as a part of your experience, it can help create space between you and the feeling you are having. We are all wired for feelings such as anxiety, and those feelings can offer data about what’s happening around us; but we are so much more than the feelings we have.

3. Identify what you have control over. When anxiety is on overdrive, and the world feels scary, it can help to identify what you actually can control in the situation. Vote. Volunteer. Your voice matters, so make it heard! It’s also important to set healthy boundaries with the election, which brings us to number four.

4. Slow your scroll and set some boundaries. While we used to have to wait to receive news through the daily newspaper or morning/night newscast, we now have access to constant news and posts shared by friends, family and colleagues. Also, when we are anxious, our brain tends to respond by seeking out more information. Yet, when we are constantly bombarded with news (which, let’s be honest, is mostly negative), we lose the opportunity to rest, process the news we’ve taken in and connect with other parts of our lives that bring us joy. We need “margins” or breaks in our day from the constant consumption of news. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stay connected with current events or educate ourselves on the issues at stake, but you’ll be more prepared to take it in and make decisions when you’ve also given yourself a chance to recalibrate. Also, it’s very possible that we won’t know the results of the election right away. So, be prepared to continue to set these healthy boundaries past election night. 

5. Take a moment to reflect on your relationships. There may be some relationships right now that call for boundaries — that’s OK and can be a form of self-care. Sometimes, though, what we actually need is a reminder of our common humanity. You know that neighbor or family member who has a sign in front of their house supporting a candidate you disagree with? In times like this, it’s easy to put ourselves in categories of “us” vs. “them.” When we lose a sense of connection with our communities, we are more at risk for mental health struggles such as anxiety. If this is a neighbor or family member you used to have a good relationship with, take time to recall those experiences of connection. Maybe there was that time your neighbor gave you a ride when your car broke down, or that family member was there for you on a special occasion. Recalling these relationships can help us reclaim a sense of belonging and connection to our communities and families, both of which will be there long after this election season is over.

6. Take care of your S.E.L.F.  The following is adapted from Kathleen Hall, founder of The Stress Institute and Mindful Living Network. During stressful times like this, it’s important to make sure we are caring for some of the basics. 

S-Serenity. Practices such as yoga, meditation, spending time in nature and sleep are all restorative and important when it comes to soothing our nervous system. After you read this article, get off your device, go outside or use that device to search for a guided yoga lesson or mindfulness exercise.

E-Exercise. I know, it seems a “cliché,” but that’s because the benefits of movement and exercise have been proven time and time again. Even turning off the news and going outside for a walk can be a great way to combat some of the anxiety you’re feeling.

L-Love. Connect with those around you. Cuddle with your kids, spend time with your partner, facetime a friend or play with your pet. Love can help foster a sense of safety, and when we feel safe it’s harder for anxiety to take the wheel.

F-Food. Don’t forget your most basic needs. Have you nourished your body today? When was the last time you had a glass of water? When we are stressed out, it’s easy to forget these basics, but slowing down to meet these most basic needs can help reset our day.

7. Last, but not least: Get support. If you’re struggling with election anxiety, you’re definitely not alone. But this doesn’t mean you should struggle without support. Whether this looks like connecting with people around you or seeking help from a professional, you deserve to feel better. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many therapists have pivoted their practices to offer safe options for their clients via teletherapy. You can find therapists in your area by asking friends or trusted providers for referrals, or through online directories such as Psychology Today and Good Therapy.

Cassidy Freitas ’08 is a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Diego. She earned a degree in psychology in the LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts and a master’s degree from the University of San Diego. She also was granted a doctoral degree from Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. Freitas teaches courses at USD, and she provides part-time supervision and consultation to marriage and family therapy trainees and interns at the University of California, San Diego.