Election anxiety is real. Here's what to do about it
Election Day is less than a month away. For many Americans, that day can’t come soon enough—for the sake of their mental health. A recent survey from the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 52% of American adults say the 2016 election is a somewhat significant—or very significant—source of stress in their lives, regardless of whether they’re Republican or Democrat.
“I think many people are shocked, saddened and stupefied by how hostile and out of the traditional bounds this has been,” says Joan Cook, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and TIME contributor. “Some seem to be caught up in the furor and are joining in the hate speech. And that certainly seems to be scaring or terrifying others.”
All of those feelings of anger, fear and stress can take a toll on the body. Stress can tense muscles, cause nausea and dampen a person’s libido. Bouts of severe emotion cause the body to initiate a stress response that can spur blood pressure and inflammation, and chronic stress can cause lasting problems.
“If you have one argument between now and the end of the election with someone, and it lasts for five to 10 minutes, you’ll have a stress response but it will go away,” says Lorenzo Cohen, director of the integrative medicine program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “But we aren’t talking about one or two arguments. People could have arguments [about the election] every day.”
Thankfully, there are ways people can deal with election-induced angst and feel better over the next few weeks. Here are 7 expert-backed tips:
Restrict your news intake to a reasonable amount. “Reading the news in print and generally limiting consumption during national crises allows people a measured dose of what is happening,” says Cook, “but seems to decrease one’s susceptibility to get over-engaged or overwhelmed.” If the constant coverage is affecting your mood, sleep or ability to work, Cook recommends setting aside times during the day to check the news, and leaving it alone outside of them.
Take three deep breaths. It’s a recommended practice in types of meditation and faith-based traditions, says Cohen. Breathing deeply helps lower levels of stress hormones and can cause biological changes in the body that have a calming effect.
Maintain a healthy routine. “During times of stress, individuals may not feel like themselves,” says Cook. “Having a set organized schedule can put familiarity and controllability back in place.” Keep up your normal routine, and don’t forget to engage in healthy behaviors like eating well, getting enough sleep and exercising.
Reserve some mindfulness minutes. Meditation is a well-studied method to ease stressful emotions, and a 2015 study showed mindfulness meditation can be as effective as exercise at lowering stress. You don’t even have to sit still to do it. Other research has shown that doing everyday tasks like washing the dishes can have similar calming effects, as long as you do them mindfully.
Try to have meaningful discussions about the election. “If you’re able to keep your cool and your perspective, and you know the other person can as well, then great,” says Cook. “Discuss away, and be respectful. Seek understanding, not blame or trying to change someone else’s mind. Honesty and communication are the keystones of healthy, close relationships.”
Know when—and how—to stop yourself. Not every chat about the election is going to be smooth sailing. It’s ok to disengage. “If we can’t listen empathically and genuinely try to understand others’ perspectives, we might want to, at least for now, stay clear of these kinds of conversations,” says Cook. If a discussion isn’t going to be productive, set a boundary and say, “‘No thanks, I’d rather not discuss the election,'” Cook recommends. If a person continues to want to argue, try this line: “’I do not want to discuss the election with you. I find it very upsetting. And if you keep bringing this up, I’m going to have to walk away, hang up and temporarily stop our correspondence,'” says Cook.
Send good vibes to people of a different political party. More meditation, but this time with a twist. Cohen recommends a type called loving-kindness meditation, during which people send good wishes to others. Start by sending them to someone you know, then someone you feel neutral about, then a person you struggle with—someone you’ve been arguing with about the election, for instance. “Send out love and kindness to that person,” he says. “We are all human beings, and elections will come and go, but our relationships with other people are more important.”