Feeling a little antsy about how Nov. 3 will play out? You’re not alone; the 2020 presidential election is such a nail-biter, therapists say they’ve been hearing clients voice their concerns and worries about the outcome for months.
“I don’t think a day of work goes by where at least one of my clients doesn’t bring up the election,” said Bethany Nickerson, a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy in Brooklyn and Manhattan. “I think there has been a lot of anticipatory anxiety as the clients watch the debates and the election gets closer.”
With so many rights and protections at heightened risk this time around ― LGBTQ+ rights, the right to an abortion, voting rights, health care, to name a few ― many are deeply concerned about how the results will directly affect their lives.
There’s secondhand worry too. Some clients have told Nickerson that although they doubt they’ll be impacted much directly, they know other people who will be and that worry weighs on them.
It doesn’t help that many voters are still smarting over the 2016 general election, where pollsters and political analysts largely got it wrong across most key states. (And don’t get those who lived through the events of Bush v. Gore started. If the words “hanging chad” don’t send a shiver down your spine, you’re lucky.)
And then there’s the immediate effect the election results will inevitably have on the holidays as folks potentially spend time with family members of differing political views.
Worries are so outsized, one therapist has coined a phrase for the experience: election stress disorder. Combine that with general living-through-a-pandemic unease and it’s hard not to be a walking ball of anxiety.
However the turnout, the best thing you can do for yourself now is to mentally prepare yourself for any outcome. That’s especially sound advice this election year since the surge of mail-in ballots has many local election officials warning there might be big delays in calling races in 2020. We may not even know who’s president on election night.
To help you prepare for what’s sure to be an unpredictable night, we reached out to therapists for advice on how to keep your sanity in the coming days (and maybe even weeks). Here’s what they said.
Don’t let “2020 is the worst” mentality trick you into negative thinking about the election.
At this point, we’ve come to associate the dumpster fire that is 2020 with negative surprises. So naturally, many are inclined to predict the worst outcome for this election, said Yasmine Saad, a psychologist and founder of Madison Park Psychological Services.
“I think a lot of folks are afraid of thinking positively out of fear of having yet another negative surprise,” Saad told HuffPost. “Plus, our mind often predicts the worst outcomes in unknown times.”
When we feel in the dark about the future, our minds automatically search for a concrete conclusion; unfortunately, many of us always land on the worst possibility.
“When you desire a specific outcome, planning for the worst does not prepare you, though, it weakens you,” Saad said. “It makes you live an anxious reality for weeks and connects you to feeling disempowered.”
The best way to combat those negative thought loops and feelings of disempowerment? Acknowledge and accept your feelings ― you’re allowed to be nervous here ― but stay hopeful too.
There’s reason to be optimistic this election: More Americans have already voted early in this year’s election than the total tally of early and absentee ballots in 2016, The Associated Press reported Sunday, nine days ahead of Election Day. What’s more, early voting data suggests that young voters seem a lot more energized than they were in 2016.
Uplifting turnout news aside, we don’t have to remind you: Still get out there and vote! Plan for the positive but don’t default to a kind of toxic positivity about the election where you assume “everything’s going to be fine.”
Be intentional about your media and social media consumption.
Yes, there’s a lot going on right now in the world and it’s good to stay informed. But in times of such heightened stress, it’s also worth evaluating what you’re taking in: Does it help you to consume the amount of media you are? Are you feeling better emotionally or acting more effectively after reading it?
“You won’t win a prize for the most or least media consumed,” said Rachel Kazez, a Chicago therapist and founder of the therapy program All Along. “Try consuming more or less and see how it impacts you. The same is true if the election isn’t decided right on Election Day ― you are ultimately in charge of what information you take in.”
And hey, you might even consider doing a social or traditional media detox on Nov. 3. (A cabin in the woods with spotty internet access sounds very nice right about now.)
Have a day-after game plan.
Make a plan now for how you’ll decompress post-election, whether your candidates win or lose or whether victors can be declared or not.
“Your plan should include something relaxing and calming like meditation or deep breathing,” said Rebecca Leslie, a psychologist in Atlanta. “[If you’re upset by the results], I also think it would be helpful to plan to reach out to a friend or family member to be a sounding board.”
While you’re thinking about this topic, plan to give yourself something to look forward to Nov. 4: Get food from your favorite restaurant. Go on a hike you’ve been meaning to try. Treat yourself to a purchase you’ve been mulling for months. Take the day off. (Better yet, if you’re still working and your vacation days are languishing, put them to use and give yourself a few days or a long weekend.)
Stop trying to mentally prepare for something that hasn’t happened.
Instead of catastrophizing the election, ask yourself, “What’s happening right now that makes me believe I need to ‘mentally prepare’ for the election?”
Once you’ve answered that, Kazez said to figure out how you can devote your energy to caring for yourself and taking action about that present concern.
“Perhaps you’re particularly worried about imprisonment and prison reform this year,” she said. “In that case, donate to a criminal justice rights fund, volunteer, connect with family and elders in your community to discuss self-protection, or practice self-care by doing something that makes you feel safe.”
Remember this all is just the tip of the iceberg.
If the last four years has taught us anything, it’s that most of us are living in political and ideological silos. What you feel and believe about any one issue varies dramatically from what others feel and believe ― your family may even be divided on the big-ticket issues.
If your candidate of choice is elected, that certainly doesn’t mean that the whole country now agrees with you. It’s not all or nothing on Election Day, so stay forward-thinking, Kazez said.
“Keep connecting with others, especially those who think differently from you and those who are doing work on causes important to you,” she said. “Get to know what it is that others value and are scared of so you can help yourself understand their position on the election, humanize them, and help reduce fear about your fellow citizens.”
Another smart post-election personal goal? Get involved in local politics in some way so you’re less anxious about the election the next go-round.
“Do some research on local politics and vote in those elections too,” Nickerson said. “Think about why your presidential candidate got your vote. Which of your personal values do they share? How can you use those values to benefit your own family and community?”
Politics at the national level can often feel completely out of our control ― and politicians on the national stage can be a little out of touch ― but it’s not the only avenue where change can happen, Nickerson said.