This post is about politics, but it is not a political post.
Political affiliation is a fraught subject and can be a significant source of division. My intention here is to offer information and advice to people who are suffering from election anxiety and to reach as many of those people as possible. If I use this space to advocate for any particular cause or candidate, a nonzero number of people will reject the entire column and dismiss information that might have otherwise helped reduce their suffering. Like many, I am very, very deeply invested in the outcome of this election, but this is absolutely not a place for me to set up my soapbox. Hence, apolitical, as best I can manage.
So what remains to be said about the 2020 elections, once political issues and platforms are excluded from the conversation?
While this is a blog about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, more generally, it is about learning to manage anxiety, frustration, futility, disruptive thoughts, compulsive and ritualistic behaviors, and maladaptive coping strategies. And whether or not you have a disorder, I suspect many of us are wrestling with at least some of these issues as we count down to the 2020 election.
First of all, it’s important to distinguish between anxiety and worry. Anxiety is a feeling, while worry is a type of thinking often triggered by feelings of anxiety: a sustained cognitive effort to resolve whatever problem is making you anxious. “People report that worry helps them to anticipate and prepare for threat (Borkovec et al, 1999). Those prone to worry tend to feel uncertain they can control events and cannot tolerate this uncertainty (Dugas et al, 1998; Freeston et al, 1994). Worry helps them feel that they have anticipated possible threats and taken action against them” (Nolen-Hoeksema et al, “Rethinking Rumination”).
Worry makes sense when it helps you work out the best solution to a problem so you can set about implementing it. But worry can become unhealthy when the cause of the anxiety is a problem or threat you cannot meaningfully influence in the moment. In Emotions Revealed, Paul Ekman writes about how our experience of fear “differs depending on whether the threat is immediate or impending.
First, the different threats result in different behavior: immediate threat usually leads to action (freezing or flight) that deals with the threat, while worry about an impending threat leads to increased vigilance and muscular tension. Second, the response to an immediate threat is often analgesic, reducing pain sensations, while worry about an impending threat magnifies pain.” The deciding factor “is whether or not anything could be done to cope with the danger… If not, if there is nothing to do but wait to see if one survives, then people are likely to feel terror.”
An event like a national election is precisely the kind of imminent, inevitable, and yet impossible-to-grapple-with threat that completely baffles our normal problem-solving strategies and can lead us instead into obsessive worry. The event is in the near future, but nothing you say or do will hasten or postpone it. It has huge implications for your personal wellbeing and happiness, yet you can’t attack the problem head-on to personally change the outcome. And although any citizen in a democracy can contribute to meaningful political change, there aren’t any immediate, obvious cause-and-effect consequences to demonstrate the efficacy of your actions. No matter what you say or do, you can never be definitively sure that your efforts are improving the situation. As Ekman puts it, “There is nothing to do but wait to see if one survives.”
Living in the shadow of an impossible problem has dire consequences for our mental health. In Freedom from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Jonathan Grayson explains how seeking certainty about an uncertain outcome feeds into OCD: “When we pursue an impossible wish, it can lead to our downfall. Almost all neutralizing rituals include an attempt to achieve the impossible—at the very least, in the pursuit of an absolute certainty or perfection that can withstand all questioning… When a definition of recovery requires achieving the impossible, the hopeless depression experienced by so many of you will be inevitable.”
This “hopeless depression” is a consequence of experiencing futility. Gershen Kaufman writes that “[w]hen one is rendered powerless in any significant area of life, one becomes susceptible to depression, hopelessness, and, eventually, despair… If prolonged, powerlessness threatens one’s ability to sustain courage and hope. The combination of helplessness and hopelessness is psychologically toxic for the self” (The Psychology of Shame).
It's perfectly normal to feel like an impending event is casting a shadow over your life, especially if there’s nothing you can really do to change or prevent it. Worry is the natural product of a restless, unsettled mind with nothing productive to expend its nervous energy on. Once you realize this, it’s easy to see how waiting for the November elections can cause excessive worry without a productive outlet.
I’ll discuss ways to manage such worries in the next column "How to Deal with Election Anxiety," introducing methods to live the best life possible while in the shadow of a massive incoming obstacle.
Copyright, Fletcher Wortmann, 2020
Paul Ekman. Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. 2nd edition. Holt Paperbacks, New York, NY, 2007. Pg. 155-6.
Jonathan Grayson. Freedom from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (Updated Edition). Penguin Random House, New York, NY, 2014. Pg. 40.
Gershen Kaufman, The Psychology of Shame: Theory and Treatment of Shame-Based Syndromes. Springer Publishing Co., New York, NY, 1989. Pg. 84.
Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Blair E. Wisco, and Sonja Lyubomirsky. “Rethinking Rumination,” Perspectives on Psychological Science. Vol 3, Issue 5, Pg. 400 – 424.