• Kayte Thomas

Managing election stress

“What can I do to get rid of this anxiety?”

As I sit here writing this week’s post, the election results still have not determined the winner of the presidential election. This isn’t unexpected given the unprecedented number of mail-in ballots due to the pandemic, but it is nerve-wracking nonetheless. Even before election day though, people were noticing a sharp increase in anxiety – although some would consider it more of a feeling of dread. The last 4 years have been exhausting for many, and the uncertainty of whether or not it will be 4 more can feel unbearable.

Some common responses to this level of stress can be to disengage and “tune out”, which can easily turn into avoidance and numbing attempts through substance use or other unhealthy coping mechanisms. This leads to disconnection both from yourself and others and so you want to be vigilant against this detachment for your health. However, some may have the opposite response and become hypervigilant which may look like constantly refreshing the news feed to find the latest results or being hyper-focused on seemingly unrelated issues in your personal life. This can - as you might imagine - significantly increase your anxiety, affect your sleep habits, raise your blood pressure, and leave you feeling generally unwell.

Both responses are your body's way of trying to protect you (disconnection is a means to disengage from the stressor, whereas hypervigilance is a way to remain alert to any potential threat), but as noted above this can be counterproductive to your health and wellness. It is important therefore to actively remain attentive to your well-being and stress responses, and to remain engaged and connected with those who are supportive and calming in your life. If you feel the need to disconnect, try to slow down instead. And if you're noticing hypervigilance, set limits on any checking behaviours.

But what can you do to manage some of these feelings during this time though? My advice is this:

First, focus on how you can survive. Then, focus on how you can thrive.

And let me be really clear about what I mean by this, starting with “survive” – if you are in a demographic which may be targeted for violence at this time, your primary focus needs to be your safety. I don’t just mean physical violence though, I’m referring to emotional and psychological violence as well. Protect your physical well-being, your mental health, and your emotional peace. And this may look different for different groups of people depending on type and level of risk. Perhaps it means avoidance of public spaces where violence may erupt. Perhaps it means consciously choosing not to engage in social media discussions. Perhaps it means setting more stringent boundaries with friends or family who do not understand and do not attempt to empathize with what you are experiencing right now. It is imperative to protect those who are marginalized or at-risk, even when that person is you. During this particularly vulnerable time, prioritize your well-being above all else.

Once safety is addressed, start paying attention to the “thrive” aspect – what are the things that bring you joy, which make you grow spiritually, or give you emotional comfort? Again, this can look very different for different people. For some, this may mean paying attention to your physical health through diet and exercise choices. For others, reconnecting with a love of dance or music or art may be needed. Maybe this means more connection with nature (remember that nature can be spiritually fulfilling for many people!) or spending more time in prayer. It may mean increasing your connection with others for some, and decreasing contact with folks for others. And for certain people, this may mean focusing on activism to have a sense of purpose during this time. Everyone will have a different answer to the question of “what do you need to truly thrive?” Find yours.

Beyond that though, now is a time to shift your focus. Being intentional about where you spend your energy and attention can make a huge difference in how you cope overall. Think about the causes and issues that you care about, and instead of focusing on a national or other large-scale outcomes, consider what is within your control. Are you concerned about the environment? Assess for changes you can make within your personal life which might offset your carbon footprint. Worried about hunger in your community? Find out about volunteer days at your local foodbank. Want to make a difference in the lives of children? See if you can sign up to read books for story time at your nearest school or library. For any issue you care about, there is something within your immediate control which you can do to contribute to the outcomes you are hoping for - often without making major changes in your life. Take ownership of that.

Narrowing the scope of your attention effectively lowers your anxiety and distress levels regarding causes you care about because it empowers you to take reasonable action steps towards change. Being able to do something on a smaller scale ensures that you will see real and measurable results that matter to both yourself and others. By focusing on realistic efforts within your capacity, you are less likely to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of a daunting task and more likely to feel that the larger scope of the need is manageable. And again, there are so many choices that this will look different for each person. Which is okay! Be mindful though that not everyone is called to the same forms of activism or effort, and that every intentional act of change has an impact. Small actions truly do have ripple effects. Pay attention to what you are doing for the issues you care about and you are likely to feel less distressed about what others are (or aren’t?) doing as well.

Have you tried these tactics though and find that you're still feeling hopeless and overwhelmed? Another way to re-focus your attention is by looking for victories in some of the other elections which took place yesterday. Here are a few outcomes you might be interested to get started with this task: check out the environmental wins, the rainbow wave of LGBTQ candidates who won their races, this historic win by a former refugee who is also the city’s first Black city council member (isn’t THAT the epitome of the “American dream” though?! Come here to seek safety and ultimately serve your community while striving for positive change as well. Three cheers for Oballa!). Maybe you’ll be pleased to know that Florida voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 or that Mississippi voted to replace its Confederate flag with a new magnolia design with a gold star intended to reflect the indigenous tribes in the state. And, my personal favourite 4 women have all been re-elected to their Congressional seats. There is good news, hope, and change if you just take the time to look for it. Reminding yourself of this can intentionally shift your perspective from one of doom to one of promise…and hope, even just a little bit, is a powerful emotion which can sustain resiliency.

By taking control of your physical/mental/emotional well-being, setting strong and healthy boundaries with others, and intentionally shifting your perspective to acknowledge what is in your control, you could quickly notice a meaningful change in how you’re feeling overall. This gives you tangible actions which hold more impact than the self-care narrative that you’re likely to hear from many during these times. Remember, bubble baths and wellness walks aren’t enough to manage the intensity of distress that many are feeling currently, and we have to make more intentional changes in order to insulate ourselves from the effects of stress and despair. Prioritizing things in this way can be truly revolutionary both for yourself and others.

Give yourself permission to turn off the news, avoid engaging with strangers on the internet, surround yourself with those who demonstrate care and compassion, and pay attention to what matters to you most. Your mental health will thank you for it.

Take care of yourselves (and each other!) friends. Breathe. We’ve got this.

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