4 Ways to Grapple With Election Anxiety and Stay Sane

Moderating your investment in the outcome can keep political theater at bay.

Posted Aug 24, 2020

Chaika1270 / Pixabay
Momentous decisions always ramp up anxiety.
Source: Chaika1270 / Pixabay

If the 2020 U.S. Presidential election is anything like the last one, many citizens will be caught up in social media arguments and news reports daily.

The more engaged and invested you are, the more likely this will make you feel anxious, depressed, and fatigued.

Uncertainty is a common source of anxiety, and the media exacerbate the feeling by treating every poll and news bite as if it were a matter of life and death. It’s their business model to rile up the electorate because it drives ratings (and earnings).

It is important to vote regularly and stay informed, but we have to go about it in a clear-headed way. Otherwise we let the stresses wrought by political theater overwhelm and sometimes even paralyze us.

Here are four things you can do to tone that down:

1. Focus on What You Can Control

Ultimately voting is the most direct way you can influence an election. Actively campaigning is another, although you cannot dictate how anyone else votes no matter how earnestly you try to persuade them. Wringing your hands won’t change a thing, and what others do is out of your control.

If you want to make a difference then participate in get-out-the-vote drives, knock on doors, donate, or involve yourself in a campaign. Focusing on what you can control is akin to a technique used by Cognitive Therapy whereby an individual works to replace negative, catastrophic thoughts like, “This is going to be a disaster” with ones more based in reality such as, “Here is an action I can take that is within my control.”

At its core, Cognitive Therapy is about changing the content of one’s thoughts, focusing on the present to solve a problem at hand rather than dwelling in the past or fretting about an unknowable future—a self–inflicted spiral known as “awfulizing.”

2. Focus on the Realistic, Not Endless What–Ifs

It is prudent to think ahead and anticipate contingencies. It is another thing to awfulize about a string of imaginary what-ifs. The coronavirus is likely to never go away, for example, even with a vaccine. (The 1918 flu virus is still with us!) This is an unexpected wrinkle when it comes to anxiety surrounding the November election.

We need to be realistic as well as cautious in deciding how we are going to vote. If voting by mail, do not procrastinate. Send it in as soon as possible to ensure your ballot arrives well ahead of deadlines. If you decide to use a drop box or go to the polls in person take the standard precautions of wearing a mask, keeping your distance, and carrying hand sanitizer.

In other words, just don't react to events: make a plan. Things will not be back to pre–COVID conditions by election time. They probably never will be.

3. Own Your Own Thoughts

Take charge of what thoughts do travel through your head. Do not allow yourself to be swept up by popular sentiment at the expense of your personal opinions and feelings. Political culture is relentless in trying to make us feel a certain way, and it is hard to heed our own perspective.

 OpenClipart_Vectors / Pixabay
Make a plan instead of reacting impulsively to events. You'll feel less anxious you did all you realistically could.
Source: OpenClipart_Vectors / Pixabay

Building resilience in keeping perspective takes practice, but the more you do it the better you can weather emotional storms brought about by things out of our control.

Another technique from cognitive therapy is to identify triggers, whether external situations or our own thoughts and feelings, and practice countering negative ones with more realistic options. Unwanted outcomes don’t invalidate your unique perspective, and it helps to go back and ask yourself what actually is under your control.

4. Feelings Are Not Facts

We confuse feelings with facts all the time without pausing to consider that we do. We watch a news segment excitedly reporting on some horror and then ruminate on it, perhaps to the point of thinking “What if this happens to me?”

Feelings are involuntary. That is, they happen to you rather than you willing them into being. Your response to an emotion, on the other hand, is completely up to you. No one can make you act or feel in a certain way.

If fear haunts you that you’ll be struck by lightning as you walk along a road in the rain, you can remind yourself, “The chances of getting struck by lightning are statistically miniscule.” If you’re worked up about the possibility that a political candidate might start a nuclear war, you can switch mental tracks with the thought that international affairs make that almost impossible.

Feelings can easily overwhelm us and stir up a torrent of thoughts that aren't particularly grounded. Keep this in mind, and you can prudently direct your thoughts to more realistic facts.

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Digital Emotion Regulation. G Wadley, et al., Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2020. 29(4): p. 412–418. doi: 10.1177/2F0963721420920592