Are Election Jitters Getting to You?

Here are four ways to cope.

Posted Oct 29, 2020

Anthony Tran/Unsplash
Source: Anthony Tran/Unsplash

If you are experiencing stress and anxiety about the upcoming U.S. presidential election, you are not alone. With the stakes perhaps higher than ever before and so much uncertainty as to when and how the election will be called, many Americans are finding themselves feeling increasingly anxious as they count down the days to November 3rd. Yet, as much as we might wish we could switch off our anxiety, it’s important to understand that this anxiety is not only understandable, but also adaptive. After all, anxiety is often what drives us to do things like make financial contributions and calls in support of our candidate.

That said, although it’s unlikely that your anxiety will resolve before winners are declared, there are things that you can do starting today to better tolerate the sense of unease that you are feeling. Below are four cognitive-behavioral strategies that you can use to manage your election-related distress so that you can more effectively navigate the present, as well as whatever transpires in the days and weeks ahead of us. 

1) Practice Acceptance

As counter-intuitive as it might seem, one of the best ways to manage anxiety is to accept not only its presence, but also the possibility of our feared outcomes. The reason? Trying to push away or avoid anxiety-provoking thoughts or sensations tends to backfire, causing these unwanted experiences to come up more frequently and more intensely in the long run. Sure, you might feel better momentarily if you try to ignore your symptoms, but this is likely to be a short-term fix that will soon leave you flailing again. For example, if you are worried that your candidate might lose (and who isn’t right now?), trying to reassure yourself with poll numbers favoring your candidate may indeed temporarily reduce your anxiety. However, as soon as you remember what similar polls predicted in 2016, your anxiety is likely to shoot up again.

It is for this reason that I recommend taking an alternative approach to your election-related worries and jitters that involves welcoming these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings when they arise rather than trying to get rid of them. In other words, if you are worried that your candidate might lose, intentionally accept and acknowledge that your candidate really could (note: not necessarily will) lose. And if your stomach is in knots as you think about this possibility, let it be in knots.

Sound tough? It is. In fact, this approach will likely increase your anxiety at first. However, the more that you practice accepting the thoughts and physical sensations that make up your anxiety, the easier it will become to tolerate them. And given that this election could drag on for days or longer, this short-term investment is worth making for the long-term relief that it provides.

2) Cope Ahead

In addition to accepting that your feared outcomes could happen, it can also be helpful to plan for how you will cope if they actually do happen. The goal isn’t to convince you that you shouldn’t be anxious about this possibility, but rather to help you strategize about how you can cope well even if this worst-case scenario occurs. In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), this skill is called Cope Ahead.1

To illustrate how to use this skill, let’s stick with the feared outcome noted above and imagine that your candidate ends up losing the election. First, brainstorm all of the ways in which you could cope with this heartbreaking loss. Although not exhaustive, here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Give yourself a day off from work and chores
  • Connect with loved ones who share your disappointment
  • Perform random acts of kindness
  • Become more politically active
  • Mask up and go for a run
  • Allow yourself to cry 
  • Spend time in nature
  • Play with your kids
  • Bake or cook a favorite food or dish
  • Clean or organize a room in your house
  • Journal about your thoughts and feelings
  • Do an arts and crafts project

Then, select the strategies from your list that you think will be most helpful for you. Next, close your eyes and imagine as vividly as possible that your candidate has lost the election while picturing yourself coping effectively with this loss by using the coping strategies that you selected. Finally, rinse and repeat, knowing that the more that you practice coping ahead, the more likely it is that you will remember to use these coping strategies should your feared outcome come to fruition. 

3) Take Care of Your Body

Even though it might seem obvious on paper, another step that you can take to manage your anxiety is to ensure that you are following the basics of self-care for the remainder of this unusually stressful election season. You know, the things that we all know we should be doing but often fail to do. These include the following:

  • Getting adequate – but not too much – sleep (for most of us, that’s 7-9 hours/night)
  • Eating healthy, balanced meals on a regular schedule
  • Exercising on a regular basis (ideally for at least 20 minutes/day)
  • Taking medications as prescribed
  • Avoiding recreational drugs
  • Avoiding alcohol (or limiting your consumption of it)

I know, you might be wondering whether it’s really worth giving up your late night binges on ice cream, wine, Schitt’s Creek, Twitter, or the news, but I promise, it is. This is because taking care of our bodies is one of the best ways to promote emotional resilience. Conversely, when we neglect one or more of these aspects of self-care, we render ourselves more vulnerable to experiencing intense, painful emotions that can easily get the better of us. Thus, as tempting as it might be to put self-care on the back burner right now, I wouldn’t recommend it.

4) Get Active

Last but not least, it can be helpful to engage in meaningful activities that bring you a sense of pleasure and mastery – even if it's the last thing that you feel like doing these days. Sure, you can still tune into the news every now and then, but it is best to limit this searching for updates to once or twice a day so that you can engage in other activities that are likely to be much more beneficial for your mood. Read a book, go for a walk, call a friend, fold laundry, cook dinner for your family, catch up on work-related emails or homework; you get the idea. 

The key here is to get active and to throw yourself completely into whatever it is that you choose to do. If worries about the election pop up, acknowledge the possibility of your feared outcomes (à la the first strategy listed above) and then gently shift your attention back onto whatever it is that you were doing. Yes, it’s okay if these worries continue to linger for a while. Remember, trying to push away a thought will likely only make that thought stronger. So, let your worries buzz around for as long as they’d like. You can even think of them as background music for your day, keeping in mind that the tune will eventually change on its own at some point.

Indeed, this election will end one day in the not-too-distant future, and hopefully we will all be singing a much more upbeat and unifying tune when that day comes. 

References

1. Linehan, M.M. (2015). DBT skills training manual (2nd ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.