Your Election Stress Is Valid. Here’s What Therapists Recommend.
Your stomach drops with each debate.
Every headline and tweet stirs up more anxiety than you realized you could muster.
Intensified political rhetoric has dominated your conversations and led to more stress, sleepless nights, and lack of focus.
If you’re familiar with any of the above or similar levels of anxiety as we gear up for the 2020 election: You might be experiencing what is referred to as election stress disorder.
Election stress disorder is a term coined by Steven Stosny, a therapist who used the phrase to describe the increased levels of anxiety and frustration that accompanied the 2016 election.
And according to Stosny: It’s stronger than ever as we gear up for the 2020 election.
“I think the reason it’s worse is because the 2016 election never really ended,” Stosny explained to The New York Times. “This is still a hangover from that. And negative emotion is more contagious than positive emotion.”
And those negative emotions are only intensified right now by the stress and grief of a global pandemic, as well as the heightened emotions that accompany fighting against racial injustice, climate disasters, and more.
If it feels like a lot at once: That’s because it is.
“For a lot of people, this upcoming election—arguably more than other elections in the recent past (or on a more local level)—has the ability to impact a lot of our daily lives, particularly for Black folks, other people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, undocumented folks, and those who live at those intersections,” therapist and co-founder of Viva Wellness Jor-El Caraballo, L.M.H.C., tells Shine. “Whether this election marks a change in our psychological or changes in our physical realities—or both—the stakes are incredibly high.”
Regardless of how your election stress might manifest, it's important to take a step back and think about what caring for yourself during this season looks like.
Here are some tips on how to create a sustainable self-care plan for before, during, and after the election.
Before The Election
Create an election season self-care plan.
Before embarking on any journey, there’s usually prep time beforehand—and the same can be said for election season. Creating a plan of action to help you actively care for your mental health can go a long way, according to Caraballo.
“I think many people have realized during this year, or this presidential administration, that we can't take our emotional health and safety for granted any longer,” he says. “Whether we are handling disagreement with relatives or dodging bigots online, we each have to explore for ourselves what tools help us feel a bit more grounded and balanced, and incorporate them more.”
But there’s no one-plan-fits all.
“Self-care is whatever works for you,” therapist Rachel Gersten, L.M.H.C., Viva Wellness’ other co-founder, says. “If you have no idea where to start, try some things out and see how you feel. There are no rules here, so anything that grounds you and recharges you is fair game.”
Gersten suggests kicking off your self-care plan with some reflection.
“More often than not, our bodies tell us what we need—we're just not listening,” she explains. “Practice asking yourself ‘How am I doing right now?’ and ‘What do I need?’ and give yourself whatever the answers to those questions are.”
That might mean turning towards a workout when you feel stressed, calling a friend when election news gets overwhelming, or listening to a meditation in the Shine app when you need a moment to get grounded. We have an entire Election Anxiety playlist with free meditations in the app, full of exercises to help you cope.
If it’s helpful, write down the actions you can take whenever you feel overwhelmed, anxious, or stressed. Then, reference this plan when you feel at a loss for how to manage the stress of this season.
Set the boundaries you need.
A big part of your self-care plan, and overall mental health care, might revolve around setting boundaries.
Limiting your interaction with social media, the televised debates, or having a boundary around conversations that trigger anxiety can be an integral part in helping you care for yourself, particularly before the election.
If scrolling on Instagram or Twitter causes you distress or harm, what are ways you can limit your social media use?
Maybe it means setting up screen time limits on your phone or finding other ways to address the boredom or curiosity you feel when the urge to scroll hits.
Of course, it’s easier said than done—especially when the urge to stay informed is so real.
Find someone in your life who is down to help you set a boundary with the news. You can ask them to deliver pressing information you might need to know without you having to succumb to doomscrolling.
And if you do cross your own boundary: Go easy on yourself. Use it as a moment to stop and reflect on whether what you're reading or watching is serving you.
“Ask yourself: Am I learning anything new? If not, stop scrolling or turn off the news,” Gersten says. “Often we end up reading the same information or stories multiple different ways and it ends up being like someone poking us in the arm 50 times versus just once. After a while, it really starts to hurt, even if it didn't initially. Get the new information, then shift your focus to something less stressful and/or heavy.”
The same boundaries you set with your phone and social media can be set in your offline life as well. Because of the fraught consequences of politics, conversations with people you care about who hold different values can be emotionally difficult and draining.
If that’s the case, know that it’s OK to protect your mental health and take a step back from the conversations that cause you harm. When taking a step back isn’t possible, setting boundaries about the tone and approach in which you expect to have a productive conversation can be helpful too.
Revamp your bedtime routine.
Sleep is one of the factors that can influence your mental health drastically, and there’s no better time than before the actual election to ensure that your sleep routines are working for you, not against you.
Make sure you’re taking on each day with as much fuel in your tank as you can. Do that by reflecting on whether or not your current bedtime routine is serving you.
What helps you feel prepared for a quality night of rest? Which habits can you let go of that get in the way of that goal? Maybe that looks like reading a book instead of scrolling on Twitter in bed or cultivating a moment of joy before you close your eyes.
Following a routine and creating a physical environment of comfort around you can help improve your sleep hygiene as well.
Creating new habits can take a while, so try gradually incorporating one new change at a time. Regardless of what those habits may look like for you, prioritizing rest and moments of recharge can help you feel balanced and mitigate some anxiety you might be experiencing.
Check in with your community.
Community care is always important, and particularly during times of increased stress.
Taking time to check in with others about how you are feeling and how they are feeling can help you feel less alone as you navigate this time. Additionally, having support as you find ways to care for yourself can inspire others around you to do the same.
Together, you all can show up for each other in really powerful ways—but it starts with being vulnerable with others about how you’re dealing with election stress and fostering an environment that encourages them to do the same with you.
On Election Day
Adjust your productivity expectations.
On the day of the election, or even the immediate days leading up to the event, it makes total sense if you’re not operating as usual.
Show up for yourself with compassion during this moment—and know that your focus and productivity might not meet your expectations. There’s a lot going on, and you’re witnessing a highly stressful life event.
“Remind yourself that it's OK that your productivity has changed,” Gersten says. “The world has changed! It's unrealistic for us to think that, as a result, our day-to-day life isn't going to change along with it. Try to avoid comparing yourself to the ‘before.’”
Gersten suggests taking a moment to reflect on your current circumstances. She recommends asking yourself questions like: What do you need now? When do you work best? When are you the most exhausted or burnt out? What is a realistic amount of work for you to get done in a day?
“Ask yourself those questions and then adjust accordingly,” she says. “You may need to re-prioritize and that's okay.”
“Remind yourself that it's okay that your productivity has changed. The world has changed! It's unrealistic for us to think that, as a result, our day to day life isn't going to change along with it.” —Rachel Gersten, L.M.H.C.
Reflecting on how you’ve handled other major events in the past can help too. Have they caused you to be distracted easily or miss deadlines due to stress?
If that’s the case, try communicating with your loved ones or co-workers about where you’re at emotionally. This can help create clearer expectations.
Check in with yourself regularly.
You might be experiencing a lot of intense emotions as the election unfolds—and some of those might include fear, frustration, and distress.
Be kind if you’re not your most upbeat self.
“Staying hopeful is as big a challenge as ever these days,” Caraballo says. Navigating the trenches of positive thinking is something he and Gersten have discussed on their podcast.
“As someone who practices mindfulness often, I think that one strategy that can help is trying to redirect your attention to what you do know now and what is happening in this current moment,” he says.
If you catch yourself feeling fearful: Try checking in and assessing your current safety.
“If you're feeling anxious about what is to come, redirect to your immediate environment and what you can see, touch, and feel," Caraballo says. "Ask yourself: Do you have what you need now? These moments can create bits of refuge and help us sustain the energy necessary to continue to advocate for safety and equity for all.”
If watching the results roll in state-by-state won't serve you: Give yourself permission to opt out until the final result is in.
Instead of being glued to the news, find soothing or grounding exercises you can do during the day (after you vote, of course!) to help you cultivate a sense of safety in the face of uncertainty.
After The Election
Recognize how you’re feeling.
After the election results come in, there’s a strong chance you’ll have a lot of emotions swirling around. Acknowledging them and sitting with them are all important parts of processing your feelings.
If your preferred candidates don’t win on either a national or local level: You might be feeling anger, which Caraballo says is a crucial emotion to address.
“Anger is often thought of as an umbrella emotion, but it’s an emotion as valid as any other,” he says. “It's the feeling we get when we feel there has been an injustice or that we've (or someone else) has been wronged. Anger is the energy we need to address and resolve that wrongdoing.”
Caraballo says charged emotions, like anger, are often letting us in on important internal information—like suggesting a boundary has been crossed.
“If we can stop and explore that feeling more fully, we can more accurately identify and address the problem with concrete action which will help us feel empowered and likely lead to a better situation in the future,” he says.
Give yourself time to process and heal.
Post-election, it’s important to give yourself the time and space you need to process the past few weeks, or even the past few months, as well as the election outcomes.
Grant yourself the patience and compassion you need to work through any lingering emotions or anxieties that have stayed—or amplified—in the aftermath of the election.
Just as you did before the election: Try honing in on what your needs are now by reflecting on how you’re feeling.
Maybe you need to incorporate more community care into your every day. Or reprioritize rest. Respect your energy levels, whatever they are.
"If on a 'normal' day, you woke up at an energy level of 8, you're probably waking up with an energy level of a 5 these days," Gersten says. "Acknowledging it and adjusting accordingly is way less stressful and more productive than trying to change what we can't change."
Your needs might change every day, or even throughout the day, and understand that it’s OK to adjust.
And just remember—similar to before, there is no one-plan-fits-all. Your journey is yours, so try not to dwell too much on how other people are managing their anxieties. Give yourself permission to go at your own pace.
Find something to look forward to.
While the election season can be a draining one, there is life beyond hitting the polls every four years. Acknowledging that truth can give you some much-needed perspective.
The issues you cared about before the election still need all your enthusiasm and support. Reflecting on the ways you can continue the work you’ve done before the election can be a great way to channel your energy once you have started processing the results.
How can you challenge your anxieties and turn them into action after election day? What can you do to cultivate moments of joy in your life outside of politics?
You don’t need to have all the answers right away, but start to think about a future you’re excited for and what you can do to build that world.
Shine is supported by members like you. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. See our affiliate disclosure for more info.