Managing Your Mental Health in An Election Year

2020 has been a year full of unpredictable events and unprecedented stressors – and we’ve still got a couple months to go.

One thing we can predict for these final months, however, is the likelihood that we’re going to see an increase in Election Stress Disorder. While this phenomenon may not be included in the DSM, it is recognized by mental health professionals as a common and documented experience, characterized by lack of focus/distraction, depressive symptoms, increased anxiety, and exhaustion. In fact, in 2016, about 52% of folks described the election cycle as being a significant source of stress. As of November 2019 – about a full year ago! – that percentage had already increased to 56%. Additionally, individual social and political issues – specifically those that revolve around health and safety, like gun safety, healthcare, immigration, and police brutality – may heighten that stress even further. After already making it through a global pandemic, nationwide economic distress, and significantly altered daily habits and rituals, it would not be surprising if the stress associated to our current election cycle becomes even more intense than usual.

So what can you do to try to manage any election-related stress you might be experiencing? There are a number of great articles out there, and we’ve gathered some of the highlights for you below.

1. It’s good to care — but you need to set boundaries.
The personal is political, and vice versa – and it’s important to be emotionally invested in your local, national, and global communities. But don’t let stressful news cycles take over your life. Make sure to set aside time to consume and discuss politics, and time to avoid them. Set boundaries with family members and friends, as well. Ask yourself what your goal is for any individual political conversation, and make sure your expectations are realistic and that the energy you are expending is efficient.

2. Practice ‘values-based living.’
The article says, ‘“Instead of going down the rabbit hole of new climate change research papers for an entire Thursday evening, read for 20 minutes and then sew the button back on one shirt to save the environmental impact of buying a new one and having it shipped to your home. […] “As psychologists, we call this ‘values-based living.’ The closer your everyday actions are to your values, the more fulfilled you will be (and the better off our climate and political system will be as well).”’Another suggestion? ‘[D]ial down a stress response to political news by “acknowledging it, letting it pass, and getting back to whatever you meant to be doing … What group can you volunteer for? Which member of Congress do you need to contact? What way can you channel that stress response into action?”’

3. Take a social media break
This is often one of the hardest things to do in a hyper-connected world, especially when we are trying to survive a pandemic and make sure we are being physically different from others. And social media is full of news and election-related content right now. Even the stuff we agree with can add to our overall distress, distraction, and exhaustion. When it’s time to set aside politics for a moment and take a break, we recommend connecting with friends on different platforms, or keeping secondary accounts where political content is blocked or unfollowed in favor of adorable cat videos. And of course, we always support time that you can take away from the screen to fully rest and recharge – like taking a walk, or reading a book for fun and escape.

4. Limit your news consumption
This goes hand-in-hand with items #1 and #3. ‘“Carve out opportunities to disconnect from the media, particularly if you find yourself becoming distraught, anxious or emotionally reactive. Staying in a state of high stress over extended periods of time can be harmful to your physical and emotional health. Take breaks and focus on the things that you have direct control over, such as day-to-day routines and relationships with loved ones. Investing in those during times of stress can mitigate the impact of upsetting news and allow you to maintain equanimity and balance.”’

5. Set an alarm for the news.
‘“Set a dedicated time once per day to check the news, and set a timer to keep yourself accountable. […] I recommend turning off all nonemergency push notifications. These notifications often cause us to interrupt our current task and we are likely to get ‘sucked in’ to whatever story comes up on our phone. This will cause our brain to make a cognitive set shift from what we are working on to then focus on the news. This cognitive set shift takes time and mental energy, although we don’t necessarily notice in the moment. It will then take us time to shift back into a working mindset.”

6. Ask yourself these two questions when reading the news.
‘”Is this article helpful?’ and ‘Is this article real (or reflective of my own truth)?’ If you answer ‘no’ to either of those questions, give yourself permission to move on from it.”’

7. Pick up a new hobby or [watch] a funny movie.
Since this article was written pre-COVID, item #7 suggests some options that may not be comfortable or safe for everyone right now (or might even be impossible!). However, the theme of those ideas still holds true. Stimulate and distract your brain by learning something new, forcing it to refocus. Watch a favorite feel-good TV show, or stream a funny movie. Read something that makes you laugh.As the article states, ‘Whatever you can do to get yourself to smile will help you in a way that is deeper than you might expect. In fact, smiling even without meaning it can reap benefits for stress management and “trick your brain into happiness”.’

8. Change what’s changeable and control what’s controllable — and understand the difference.
‘“Most of the political climate is not controlled by us nor can we change other’s beliefs or feelings around it. Accepting the idea that we can only control ourselves and change things for us is a powerful reminder to not get caught up ruminating on the unchangeable and the uncontrollable. It is important to point the finger inward and ask, ‘What about this can I change and control?’ before you get caught up in the stress of it all.”’

9. Celebrate the good things.
Some of the specific examples in this article are out of date, but as many folks have tried to show us during the long months of the spring and summer, there is always some good news out there.  There are always people fighting for justice, communities that pull together, and folks making a difference and uplifting each other. Don’t forget to seek out those stories – and even identify them in your own lives.

From University of Maryland