By Judith S. Beck, PhD, Beck Institute President & April Moran, LCSW
A certain degree of anxiety is adaptive and can allow us to perform at a high level. It can cue us to study for an upcoming exam, prepare for a meeting, or make sure we look both ways before crossing the street. With a particularly stressful election just days away, those who struggle with anxiety may feel more intense worry or fear – and behave accordingly. Before we discuss election anxiety, let’s use another fairly common example.
Mary was awaiting test results from her doctor. She noticed that her thoughts, “I can’t stand not knowing. What if it’s serious?” led her to feel quite anxious. Her perception of danger led to physiological changes: her heart started beating fast, her chest felt tight, her hands got sweaty, her neck and shoulders felt tense. What happened behaviorally? Mary isolated herself, stopped talking to friends and family, and obsessed over potential catastrophic outcomes.
Mary may indeed have something medically wrong with her. Yet, her thoughts are not helpful. She can’t stop herself from having anxious thoughts; they arise automatically. But she can respond to her thoughts. An adaptive response might be, “If I get a bad result, I can get a second opinion. I can ask my friends for help. I’ll be able to cope.” This shift in her thinking reduces her anxiety and allows her to go back to her usual activities, despite the looming uncertainty.
Maladaptive anxiety, like obsessing, over-responding with excessive emotion, and unhelpful behaviors, can negatively impact us and our mental and physical well-being (Wagner, 1990). Let’s look at another example. Mike was thinking about the election. He thought, “If my candidate doesn’t win, the country will be ruined.” This thought leads to high anxiety, hopelessness, and anger. His mind and body reacted as if there was an immediate and extreme danger, as if there were a tiger in the room.
If Mike had learned the skill of evaluating his thinking, he might have been able counter his catastrophic thinking. He might have reached the conclusion, “I don’t like not knowing who will win, but I’ll be able to handle it. No matter what, the country as a whole won’t be ruined. If I don’t like what happens, I can volunteer to make my corner of the country better. And I can get politically active to make sure the next election goes better.” If he had been able to think in this way, Mike’s anxiety and physiology would have calmed down.
The following list contains strategies to help you decrease your election anxiety:
- Recognize your emotion. When we experience high emotion, we usually equate it with catastrophe. Just labeling your emotion can make your experience more understandable and cue you to act more helpfully. For example, you can tell yourself, “I’m feeling very anxious about the election now. But a high degree of anxiety doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a terrible problem.”
- Change how you think about uncertainty. Uncertainty does not necessarily mean that danger will occur. If you think about it, we live with uncertainty on a daily basis. Every time we drive a car or cross a busy street, there’s no guarantee that we’ll be safe. So, it’s important to calculate the odds of a negative outcome, especially a catastrophic one. If your candidate doesn’t win, you may be uncertain about your future. But chances are you will still conduct your day to day activities in the same way.
- Imagine your life four years from today, when our country is preparing for our next presidential election.Picture this day in detail. Where are you likely to wake up? What are you likely to do next? Next? Keep going until you’re fall asleep at night. Doing this can help you see that you will survive whatever happens on election day this year.
- Realize you often can’t fix a problem until it happens (if it happens at all). If your candidate doesn’t win the election, and you encounter difficulties (e.g., in your job, in your financial well-being, in your treatment by others), there may be nothing you can do now. And these challenges may not even arise and you may be worrying needlessly.
- Assess how adaptive your thinking is. If it’s not helpful, think about how you could cope if the worst does happen. What personal resources do you have? Whom could you call on for help? But also think about the best outcome and the most realistic one.
- Focus on what you can control. While you can’t control the outcome of the election, you can control what you do if you don’t like the outcome. We may not get the results back for hours or days, or possibly even longer. Have a plan for what you’re going to do. Do something that engages you and connects you to others. The antidote for anxiety is often connection.
- Institute a news blackout. Don’t watch, read, or listen to the news and get off of social media for at least 24 hours. (Or if you can’t do that, check the news only once a day.) You can always tell someone in your social circle that you’re doing this and you can ask them to let you know if something immensely important happens. Notice if your anxiety is lower. If so, you may want to renew the news blackout intermittently or for a longer period of time.
- Practice mindfulness. Download an app that teaches you how to disengage from your anxious thoughts, accept them non-judgmentally, and turn your attention to valued action.
- Focus on defining and living your values. What’s most important to you in life? Relationships, family, productivity, health, self-improvement, community, spirituality, recreation, creativity, nature, relaxation? No matter what happens in the election, you can vow to do a better job of living according to your values.
You don’t have to be at the mercy of your emotions, even at this extremely important point in our history. Try some of the techniques above. They will help you consider the future more reasonably, focus on other things in your life that are important to you, and plan what to do if the election doesn’t go the way you hope.