It’s a really freaking stressful time to be alive right now. Everywhere you turn, the news feels overwhelming–a continuing global pandemic, wildfires across parts of the west, and, of course, an upcoming election. A recent survey conducted on behalf of the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 68% of U.S. adults consider the 2020 presidential election to be a significant source of stress in their lives. That number is significantly up from four years ago, when 52% of people felt this way.
No matter how you identify politically, the uncertainty in our world right now can feel scary. “I think the reason why the stress is so much higher is a result of not just the election, but of a greater realization of the ways leadership impacts all these other national events–whether it’s climate change, the pandemic, or the level of social unrest,” says Vaile Wright, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and senior director of Health Care Innovation at APA in Washington, D.C. “There is more at stake for people than maybe we’ve given it credit for in the past.” If this election feels life-or-death right now, that’s because… well, in many ways, it is.
Unfortunately, this drawn-out stress impacts more than just your mental health. It can bleed over into your productivity at work, your ability to be present with loved ones, and even your basic physical needs like a healthy diet and sleep. But none of us can fast-forward the clock and wish these next few weeks away. So, what can we do to stay sane and grounded? (Spoiler: More than you might think!)
Stress & Your Body
Stress is just a fact of life, even when our external environment feels stable. “Everybody experiences stress,” Wright says. “The biggest challenge here is that stress is not supposed to be this chronic.” Since the COVID-19 lockdowns began in March, all of us have seen our lives turned upside down. Almost nine months later, there’s still no end in sight to the quarantine life.
“When stress never goes away, that’s when we start seeing pretty significant long-term physical and mental health consequences,” Wright explains. Chronic stress can contribute to worsening health problems, exacerbating pre-existing conditions like COPD, hypertension, musculoskeletal disorders, and GI dysfunction. The common denominator? Chronic inflammation.
Here’s how it all goes down: Stress triggers the release of a hormone called cortisol, commonly known as the “stress hormone.” Cortisol spikes your energy levels to help you get through whatever crisis event. But when stress becomes chronic, your cortisol can’t keep up, leading to inflammation throughout the body. Research has shown that the link between chronic stress and inflammation can have cascading effects on multiple organs and internal systems–your endocrine system, cardiovascular system, and gastrointestinal system, to name a few.
Theresa Nguyen, LCSW, chief program officer at Mental Health America in Alexandria, VA, echoes this distinction between episodic anxiety and ongoing stress. “Your brain is a muscle, so it can handle some stress,” she says. “But just like you might over-[exercise], too much effort or tension on any muscle is going to be a problem.” After months of unrest, our brains are fed up with this unpredictability and angst. It’s no wonder most of us have the urge to crawl back in bed and hide.
The APA study also found that folks with chronic health conditions are even more likely to report election-related stress this year. Wright thinks this likely has to do with COVID-19, which poses serious risks for those with underlying health issues. “Their level of investment in maintaining healthcare is probably much higher than those without a pre-existing health condition,” she says–whether that’s investment in maintaining the status quo around healthcare or in changing it. Poorer physical health is also tied to poorer mental health outcomes in the long run.
An Uncertain Timeline
One other reason this election feels different is that the timeline is a big unknown. Due to the unprecedented number of mail-in ballots cast this year, most experts expect election results to be delayed at least a few days. Others say it may take weeks after November 3 for voters to know who won their state and national races.
Wright explains that uncertainty can often be a driver of stress. “For a lot of people, we like predictability,” she says. “When things are so uncertain, it makes it really hard to plan, and it reminds us of all the things that are out of our control.” And the reality is that this election is, in many ways, uncontrollable (other than our ability to vote). There is no way to predict the results or the time at which we’ll know them.
The one thing we can do is adjust our expectations regarding the timeline. “I think we need to approach that uncertainty head-on by trying to focus on the things that are in our control, and one of those is our mindset,” Wright notes. “That includes that expectation that we might not know the results of this election until mid-November or the end of November.” Knowing things will play out atypically can help you stay calm if results don’t come in right away.
How Not to Panic
When it feels like the world around you is spiraling out of control, it’s easy to throw your hands up and try to retreat from the chaos. “One of the risks that happens when we get this overwhelmed is that we get frozen, and we feel like we can’t act or that acting isn’t meaningful,” Wright says. “And really it actually is.” Here’s how to act in a useful way.
Focus on what you can control, even on a tiny scale. “What can you control within your own home? What can you control within your own community? What can you control within yourself?” Wright asks. Maintain your daily routine, stay connected to your loved ones, and invest your time into causes you care about. Bring groceries to a neighbor who has trouble getting out on their own. Show up for a friend who is struggling. “In your local community, this will make you feel like you have more control,” Wright explains. “You can often see the change.”
Pay attention to your mental health. Don’t distract yourself so much that you forget to keep tabs on your own health. “It’s important to self-reflect and identify what you need,” Nguyen says. “It’s easy for us to go to work and do what we feel like we have to do, and not pay attention to these little nudges or red flags that tell us, ‘You’re slowly falling into a trap.’ Paying attention is the first step.” Listen to your mind and body and rest when you need to.
Modulate your news intake. Don’t we all have a love-hate relationship with the news right now? “It is our civic duty to stay informed, but that doesn’t mean having to stay constantly connected 24/7,” Wright says. “Most of us can get the amount of news we need in 30 minutes to an hour a day.” Set aside your breakfast hour or lunch break to fill in on the day’s breaking stories. Whatever you do, try to put down your phone at least an hour or two before bed so your sleep isn’t disrupted by your news anxiety. “It’s okay to give yourself breaks,” she urges. “In fact, it’s not just okay–it’s necessary to take breaks from all the negative information we’re being exposed to in this moment.”
Vote! You’re hearing it from everyone at this point but voting really can help you feel more empowered. “People say that voting is one of the ways that helps them manage their stress,” Wright says. “One, they feel like they’ve done something active. Two, it almost gives you permission to not pay quite so much attention after you’ve already done your part.” Not that you should mentally check out, by any means (civic engagement is important!). But once you’ve voted, you can breathe easier knowing you’ve made your voice heard.
Amidst everything, try to remember that this moment won’t last forever. “That’s one thing you can count on, is that time moves forward,” Nguyen says. “Do the little bit you can to take care of yourself, and things will change.” Next time it feels like the world is crumbling around you, stop and remind yourself of the tasks at hand. “I can’t let go of the fear that something might happen, but what I can do is say, ‘At least for today, this is handled, and this is what I need to focus on,” Nguyen says. It’s about “being present, right here and right now.’”