Struggling With Election Anxiety?

Basic coping skills can help keep stress in check.

Posted Oct 14, 2020

Nebojsa Tatomirov/Shutterstock
Source: Nebojsa Tatomirov/Shutterstock

It is impossible to distinguish election-anxiety behaviors, such as continually checking your cellphone and experiencing news cycle fatigue, from COVID-19 anxiety behaviors. They both manifest the same in your body but can have different triggers. Anxiety disorders were already common before COVID. Now, the combination of COVID and a hostile political environment fill the news, blogs, and social media platforms. It's hard to get away and there is more than enough anxiety to go around. People are more reactive and irritable, and less tolerant. Understanding why this is going on, identifying your emotional reactions to the information sources, and recognizing your biggest triggers can help you manage some of the stress and feel more in control. But know this: You are not alone.

The lack of information and uncertainty has already triggered widespread doomscrolling. This is a biological response, part of the survival instinct. Information seeking is nature’s way of helping us to control our environments and make them less dangerous. If we know where the sabertooth tigers are hiding, we are much more likely to survive. Our environment is a lot different now, but we still instinctively for information as a way to try to control the environment and make it less scary.

The politicizing of COVID has meant that the campaign season really began when the pandemic hit. Inconsistent information and misinformation layer a level of anxiety on top of fears and stressors that come from social isolation, health concerns, personal and professional obligations, and the financial impact. People feel vulnerable and are hypersensitive to danger.  

The election represents very polar opinions about human values. There is a sense that this is a sort of watershed moment and for many, one that comes with a sense of real physical threat. This has been exacerbated by hints from Trump that he would not accept the election results if he loses. Not only does this raise the threat of violence, especially in the wake of the attempted kidnapping of Michigan Governor Whitmer, but it undermines trust in the government and the democratic system. 

It’s not surprising, then, that people are experiencing anxiety right now and they will continue to until the election is resolved. We will continue to look for clues across the media. News stories trigger our instinctive need to know even when the information has no practical value. Lack of information or, worse, predictions of dire events, further elevate our reactions. Having our emotions continually triggered is exhausting. Exhaustion reduces our cognitive resistance and self-regulation. This leads to a lack of self-control. An emotional hair-trigger and impulsive behavior can hurt our relationships, our waistlines, and our mental health. Worrying about it all can make it worse.

The Warning Signs of Anxiety

Whether you’re anxious about the election or COVID (or both), it may help you to know certain behaviors are reactions not purposeful or helpful. These include:

  • Continually checking the news for “new” information.
  • Feeling you will miss something if you aren’t plugged in.
  • Reading the same news over and over.
  • Being drawn to articles that trigger negative emotions, but not being able to stop reading/listening.
  • Wanting to continually talk over your election fears with family and friends, unable to let the topic go.

Basic Coping Skills for Anxiety

There are some basic coping skills and techniques that you can use to help manage election-related anxiety and keep your stress in check.

It helps to recognize that all the above behaviors are normal reactions—part of the fight or flight response to being in danger. It would be unusual to not feel some level of tension—the election is an extension of the COVID environment. Emotions are high and ramping up with the media full of political rhetoric and posturing. The COVID risks are real and inseparable from the campaign with the number of cases rising as the weather cools. 

Anxiety responses are emotional and reactive, so the best approach is to actively practice cognitive interventions. These are purposeful actions that interrupt emotional and unconsciously driven behaviors and refocus your attention, such as body awareness exercises. Cognitive reframing can help you identify, challenge and change your thoughts and emotions by defining them in a new way or activities, meditation, mindfulness, or even playing with your dog all take advantage of the physiological response to focusing your attention on the present, creating new neural pathways, and reinforcing new beliefs. These behaviors shift energy resources away from the sympathetic system’s fight or flight response. When you're busy worrying, you're pumping all kinds of adrenalin and cortisol that not only keep you amped up but inhibit your parasympathetic system, which controls your ability to relax. The parasympathetic system acts like the brakes on a car and releases hormones that relax both your mind and the body, lower your heart rate and blood pressure, relax your muscles, and strengthens your immune system. Not bad for setting your phone aside and investing in a few minutes of deep breathing or dog petting.

If deep breathing or animal therapy isn’t enough to keep you off the news feeds' and pointlessly ruminating, make some new behavioral rules for yourself to facilitate decision-making. For example, a rule might be: Checking the news once a day is enough. If you have checked the news once today, you have all the information that you need. Nothing is going to happen that will demand your action. 

The reality is that no amount of information will take the sense of threat away—only cognitively reframing the experience will help. When you continually check news sources, you are giving away your energy and power. So take the time to get your power back.

Try this technique from cognitive behavioral therapy: Write out some new self-talk on a 3x5 card (or in the notes on your phone—although that’s riskier given the proximity to news sources) to reinforce new beliefs that you can pull out when you’re feeling compelled to read more. 

Experiment with the messaging that works best for you. Be creative and forceful. Your 3x5 card might say:

  •  “I have all the information I need.”
  •  “Take three deep breaths and imagine something you’re grateful for.”
  •  “I won’t waste my emotions and energy on things I can’t control. When I allow myself to be preoccupied with the election, I’m giving away my power.”

You can also direct your energy to a new activity or chore where you can feel productive and a sense of completion for getting it done—these trigger neural rewards and can help lessen anxiety.

  •  “It’s time to go for a run.”
  •  “Go do the dishes or the laundry.”

How to Help Someone Deal With Election Anxiety

When you’re dealing with an anxious friend, partner, child, or coworker, telling them not to worry doesn’t help or work. In fact, it often makes them feel defensive because in trying to make them feel better you are denying their feelings. We all want to have our emotions and worries validated. While anxiety is unpleasant, knowing that others gave empathy for our feelings actually makes us feel safer because we’re not in it alone.  

Validating experience is good. Letting them ruminate, however, isn’t. Don’t let someone unload a continuous flow of worries in your attempts to let them feel heard. Repeatedly revisiting potential troubles is likely to increase negative emotions such as anxiety and habitually ruminating is often a sign of depression.

Here are some tips:

  • Tell your anxious friends that you can see that they’re worried. 
  • Try to normalize their anxiety so they don’t blow it out of proportion. We’re all anxious right now.
  • Ask them what things they are worried about that they can control. 
  • Depending on the nature of the anxiety, identifying specifics, and making strategies to deal with it ahead of time can help.
  • Explain that doomscrolling is the same as ruminating, not problem-solving.
  • Problem-solve anti-anxiety solutions. Ask them what they do to feel less anxious or relieve stress. Hot baths? Silly cat videos? Make-up tutorials? Rom-coms?
  • Help them create an easy plan to manage stress and anxiety. This might be baby steps into mindfulness, deep breathing, a nature walk, or other peaceful activity. No one starts meditating for hours overnight. Even a five-minute session can help.
  • Develop some positive self-talk about actions they can control and to reaffirm strengths. This is where those 3x5 cards come in handy. For example:  “I can’t control the election, but I can encourage people to vote,” “I am in control of how I think, feel, and act” or my personal favorite, “No matter what happens, I can handle it!”

Reach Out and Touch Someone

Social contact is a very good antidote to stress. It’s easier to allow anxiety to ramp up when we’re alone. Reach out to friends, even if it’s on Zoom. Don’t use your friends to rehash your worries, reach out to experience the benefit of their warmth, camaraderie, and emotional support, share some laughs, and hear about others’ lives. Caveat: Don't hang with friends who are preoccupied with politics online or offline. You want to get away from anxiety, not find new reasons to worry. 

As always when dealing with mental health, if anxiety feels debilitating, don’t be afraid to contact a mental health professional. It’s not a weakness to call on the skills of a professional when you need help. We call hairdressers, plumbers, and dentists when we need a specific kind of expertise to get something done. Mental health professionals are no different—they have specific expertise that can make a big difference in a short amount of time. 

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory