Oct 6, 2020
By Joe Grasso, PhD
It’s no secret that as a nation, the United States has been through a lot in the last eight months. The onset of the coronavirus pandemic has spread fear nationwide, upended routines, and caused the loss of more than 230,000 lives. This year, we’ve also seen the greatest economic recession since 2008 and brutal reminders of institutionalized racism in the U.S. Regardless of your location or demographic, 2020 has been defined by unprecedented stress and uncertainty.
With the national election and the possibility of a delayed outcome fueling even more worry, we’re dedicating this two-part series to help you cope with stress, anxiety, and other feelings you may be experiencing right now.
The sheer uncertainty permeating so many factors in our daily lives–from the amount of exposure risk we face going to the grocery store to the outcome of this year’s national election–can add up to plenty of stress. You may be feeling nervous, which can manifest in racing thoughts, rapid breathing, or feelings of panic. How can you cope with the nagging feeling that everything is spinning out of control, nothing is OK, and that there’s very little you can do about it?
First, know that it’s OK to not be OK. It’s also vital to prioritize your mental and physical health, even during tumultuous times. Here are some ways to address the election-related stress you may be experiencing:
Stress relief for physical symptoms: Alleviate some of the physical symptoms of election anxiety through proven stress-relieving strategies, including:
Focus on what you can control: Try to shift your energy toward what is within your control. You alone may not be able to resolve social or political problems, but there are issues that you can tackle. For example, if you’re concerned about your physical and emotional well-being during stressful times, remember steps you can take to preserve your health even amidst the chaos of the outside world. Can you focus on getting the right amount of sleep, eating regularly occurring meals, and connecting with people who are important to you? Are there home or work-related stressors you can address (for example, sharing chore responsibilities with your partner or seeking flexibility on a project deadline from your manager) to help relieve your overall stress? The more you can do to solve the solvable, the better you’ll feel about the greater uncertainty around you.
The fact is, there is no way to know what the future holds, whether related to the upcoming election or another of the many pressing issues we face today. There is no precedent for many of the world’s current problems–and even if there were, it wouldn’t be a firm predictor of what will happen. So how can you combat the fear of the unknown future?
The key is not to fall into a thinking trap, which is typically a negative thought pattern that prevents you from seeing things clearly and rationally. Fear can prompt us to engage in thinking traps, such as forecasting the future in terms of catastrophic worst-case scenarios and overestimating the probability of those scenarios actually occurring. Another common thinking trap is negative filtering, which involves filtering out objectively positive facts about situations, circumstances, and our ability to cope.
Let’s use Steve, a fictional character, to illustrate an example of negative filtering. Steve wanted to use his time in shelter-in-place to get into great physical shape and stay productive at work. Several months into shelter-in-place, he has not made much progress in either domain, and although he’s been receiving positive job feedback from his boss and stayed in relatively good shape, he can only focus on his failure to achieve his goals as he filters out the evidence that he’s doing pretty well.
According to Matt Boone, LCSW, you can start to emerge from a thinking trap by being aware of your thinking patterns, and checking them when you notice your thoughts are precipitating an increase in distressing emotions. This process of evaluating your thinking patterns–or reappraisal–involves challenging unhelpful thoughts and replacing them with rational, helpful thoughts. For example, if you feel a spike in anxiety, try tuning in and noticing what’s going through your mind in that moment. If it’s a catastrophic worry about the future, try re-examining that thought and considering what alternative thought might be more reasonable or inspire a more productive action, like problem-solving or self-care.
Constant stress is mentally exhausting. The present-day political environment and the constant changes and transitions in the world can overload your mind and cause emotional strain. When anxiety is triggered by current events like the upcoming election, it can feel relentless.
If your stress about current events makes you feel fatigued, consider taking a news and social media break–or at least decreasing the frequency or amount of time you’re spending on news and social media. If you’re worried about missing news updates, consider refining your information sources to outlets that offer straightforward facts, rather than the often dramatic and memefied sources that may appear in your social media feed. And consider checking those sources just a couple of times daily, rather than being constantly glued to a screen.
Additionally, take stock of your habits, and make sure you’re building and maintaining healthy daily routines that promote positive emotions. Focus on engaging in activities that bring a sense of purpose, such as connecting with loved ones, spiritual practices, volunteering, or engaging in favorite hobbies and interests.
It may seem like the world is a whirlwind of uncertainty and tension, and in the current political environment, it can be easy to feel powerless. But even as stressful current events unfold around you, remember that you can still take care of yourself, and that some aspects of life remain within your control. While it’s OK not to be OK, be sure to show yourself compassion and nurture the hope you need to get through these turbulent times. And stay tuned for the second part of our series on coping with feelings around current events, where we’ll discuss more common emotions you may be experiencing and ways to cope.
If you want help connecting with a therapist, Lyra can assist you. You can get started today if Lyra is offered by your employer. Sign up here.
DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joe Grasso, PhD, is the Clinical Director of Partnerships at Lyra Health and a licensed clinical psychologist. Dr. Grasso consults with employers on mental health initiatives in the workplace and leads the development and delivery of Lyra’s educational content. He also specializes in developing, evaluating, and disseminating evidence-based behavioral health care programs.