Chances are, you’ve been feeling a range of emotions leading up to Election Day as you wait to find out who will be the next president of the United States, how the Senate races will turn out, and which ballot measures will pass.
“All of these feelings are normal, whether you’re feeling anxiety or optimism or indifference,” Dr. Nina Vasan, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine and chief medical officer of Real, tells Yahoo Life. “It’s also important to recognize that we all react and cope in different ways.”
However, the most common emotion that people are feeling seems to be anxiety. According to an October 2020 poll conducted by the Harris Poll for the American Psychological Association (APA), nearly 70 percent of American adults say that the 2020 U.S. presidential election is “a significant source of stress in their life,” compared to 52 percent in 2016, according to the APA press release.
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If you’re feeling anxious...
You’re far from alone if the upcoming election has you feeling stressed out or even downright fearful, wondering if your candidate will win and what the consequences will be if he doesn’t.
Stressing out about the future of our country can manifest in physical discomfort. “When you ruminate about the worst-case scenario it can lead to stomach tension, nausea and lack of appetite,” Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist and founder of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services in New York City, tells Yahoo Life.
It can also leave you struggling to fall or stay asleep at night. “This is a true sign of anxiety and stress,” says Hafeez.
Vasan agrees, telling Yahoo Life: “A lot of folks are having difficulty sleeping. It’s having these ruminating thoughts and you keep thinking, ‘What if this happens?’ and worrying — and that makes it really hard to fall asleep.”
The coronavirus pandemic only adds to the levels of stress that people are already facing. “It’s this ongoing threat and this overlap of the election,” Vasan says. “There were already enough levels of anxiety because of the pandemic. It’s that sense of not knowing what my life is going to look like [post-election] and… fears around my health, my financial stability. ‘Am I going to have a job?’ ‘Are we going to have a shutdown again?’ It’s very different from past elections.”
In addition, many of the outlets people relied on to help them be resilient and stay calm — such as inviting friends over or going to the gym or the movies — “have been taken away” because of the pandemic, says Vasan. “It’s causing even more stress.”
Here’s what you can do
If you’ve already cast your vote, remind yourself that “there is nothing more you can do at this point,” says Hafeez. “If you are a spiritual or religious person, you can pray that your candidate wins… but beyond that, the ultimate outcome is out of your control if you have done your civic duty.”
In the meantime, Vasan says the best ways to reduce anxiety is through exercise (particularly cardio, which she says is “especially helpful” for combating stress), mindfulness (Vasan recommends using a meditation app, such as Headspace or Calm), and getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night (follow these tips on good sleep hygiene).
“What's amazing about both exercise and mindfulness is that the scientific evidence we have shows how enormously beneficial they are,” says Vasan. “It improves people's mood, makes them feel more connected, and it’s free.”
Focusing on what you can control may also help. Chloe Carmichael, psychologist and author of the upcoming book, Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety, suggests that if you’re feeling anxious, then a “healthy thing to do would be to ask yourself, ‘What is it that you’re afraid of?’” She tells Yahoo Life: “The simple answer is, ‘I’m afraid my candidate will lose.’ Ask yourself, ‘If the other candidate wins, then what is it I'm afraid of?’ It can be helpful.”
Carmichael says that if, for example, you fear the economy will go “sideways” if the other candidate wins, “that may be a good time to have a quick call with your financial adviser and see if there is something you can do in the short term to put yourself in a better position.”
Last but not least: Limit your media consumption on Election Day (and in general) if it’s stressing you out. “It makes it easier to not get bogged down in a downward scrolling spiral,” says Vasan. And pick up a journal instead. Studies show that journaling — “being able to write down how you’re feeling and having a space where you can express yourself,” says Vasan — can reduce anxiety.
If you’re feeling pessimistic…
It’s understandable if it feels like there are no rose-colored glasses in sight. Many Americans are feeling pessimistic about how the country is doing in general: A September 2020 poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that the majority (72 percent) of Americans say “things in the country are heading in the wrong direction.”
With the election, some may be experiencing what’s called “defensive pessimism,” says Carmichael, which means “looking at potential negatives or downsides as a defense so you don’t end up being terribly disappointed.” She adds: “It’s actually healthy and helpful to a degree, but it can backfire and spiral into plain old negative thinking.”
If you find yourself getting sucked into defeatist thinking, “you’re almost forecasting and living within that negative outcome,” says Carmichael. “That can actually block out our awareness of silver linings.”
Even in normal times, though, it can be hard not to focus on negative thoughts and fears. In general, “the brain is more likely to identify and remember negative things,” explains Vasan. “It’s a survival mechanism.”
Here’s what you can do
Because of the brain’s tendency to hone in on the negative, Vasan says that’s why “you need to have more positive [things to focus on] to undo the brain’s natural mechanisms.”
Carmichael suggests finding silver linings whenever you can, such as appreciating the fact that you still have “your health, your family, your job, your faith, your friends, or your cooking and your hobbies.”
Vasan agrees, and says that even if your candidate doesn’t win, you may have gotten more involved in the political process than in the past and now plan to stay more active in the issues you care deeply about. Focusing on these types of silver linings is “valuable for coping,” Vasan says.
If you’re feeling indifferent…
Between the pandemic and the divisive election, it’s understandable that some people are feeling numb or just want to disengage. “I think a lot of that comes from being tired and exhausted,” says Vasan.
For others, the indifference may stem from believing that their vote doesn’t matter (it does) or that they can’t make a difference. “Your voice can make a difference,” says Vasan.
However, Vasan notes that “apathy” — a lack of interest in life in general, not just the election — is often a sign of depression that needs to be addressed.
Here’s what you can do
Find ways to get involved in the causes you do care about rather than feeling indifferent because you believe your vote doesn’t matter. “Even if you live in a state where you feel it’s going to be landslide blue or landslide red, and you vote the other way and your vote may not really matter in the electoral college of your home state — that may be true, but there are so many ways you can participate,” says Carmichael. “You can do phone campaigns in swing states for whichever side of the aisle you do favor. You can think about your local politics. Think of what you’d be worried about in terms of local laws and things that might be changing. What better time than now to get involved in your local or state government?”
Carmichael says you can try attending a city council meeting, learn about a particular issue in your area that you’re concerned about, or make a $10 donation to a cause you care about. “There’s always something you can do,” Carmichael says.
Another way to counter feelings of apathy? Get moving. Apathy “makes you want to stay at home and be under the covers,” says Vasan. “All of that is okay. But it leads to more of the same versus when you actually get out and do something [it] almost always makes you feel better.”
Make a list of pleasurable activities, such as taking an online painting class, doing a virtual workout with a friend, going on a family walk or hike, bird watching, or planting a garden. “Find something… that makes you feel positive and connected to other people, that brings you joy,” says Vasan. “It’s totally OK if you don’t want to read a single article about the election, if that’s your way of coping. But find something that adds joy to your life and makes you feel positive. It’s that intentionality around identifying what makes you feel good.”
If you’re feeling optimistic…
Given how stressful most of this year has been, Vasan says that “the more people who can express optimism, the better.”
If you’re convinced that your candidate will win by a landslide, then good for you. But, says Carmichael, “we always want to take both optimism and pessimism in perspective. We don’t want to be so optimistic that we set ourselves up [and are in] a place of denial and end up blindsided” if the candidate we voted for doesn’t win.
Blind optimism is not the same thing as simply believing that “no matter who wins, the sun will still rise,” says Carmichael, adding: “There’s nothing wrong with being hopeful or focusing on the positive.”
Here’s what you can do
Spread your healthy optimism to others through social media or one-on-one conversations, suggests Vasan. “It’s an antidote in a lot of ways,” Vasan says. “Some see it as naive, but I do think given how everyone is tired from the pandemic, we as a society need those bursts of energy, joy, and happiness of optimists.”
She adds: “Your optimism can make someone else’s day and change the way they’re thinking, especially if they’re getting in these negative cycles.”
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