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 as well as prompting major lifestyle changes and causing the loss of more than 210,000 lives. This year, we’ve also seen the greatest economic recession since 2008, as well as the severity of institutionalized racism and racial disparity in the U.S. Regardless of your location and demographic, 2020 has created unprecedented stress and uncertainty for everyone.
With the anticipation of the upcoming national election and the possibility of a delayed outcome, we’re dedicating this two-part series to addressing some of the stress, anxiety, and other feelings you may be experiencing, and how you can cope.
The sheer uncertainty permeating so many factors in our everyday lives–from the amount of exposure risk we face going to the grocery store to the movement for social justice and equality in the U.S.–can be extremely stressful. You may be feeling nervous–which can manifest in racing thoughts, your breath speeding up, or feelings of panic. So 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. But you should still prioritize taking care of your mental and physical health through 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 potential physical symptoms of election anxiety through proven stress-relieving strategies, including:
Reassert control: Try to focus on what is within your control. You may not be able to control social or political problems, but there are issues that you as an individual can solve. For example, if you’re concerned about your physical and emotional wellness during stressful times, remember what you can do to champion your health even amidst the chaos of the outside world. Can you focus on prioritizing the right amount of sleep, eating regularly occurring meals, and socializing with people who are important to you? Or are there other stressors you can solve at home (for example, sharing chore responsibilities with your partner) or at work (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 occurring in the world can overload your mind and cause emotional strain. When anxiety is brought on 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/or social media break–or at least decreasing the frequency or duration of time you’re spending consuming news and social media. If you’re worried about missing news updates, consider refining your information sources to outlets that offer straight-forward facts, rather than the dramatic and memefied sources that may pop up in your social media feed. And consider checking those sources only 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 beloved 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 amid stressful current events, it’s important to remember that you can continue to 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 tumultuous times. And stay tuned for the second part of our series on coping with feelings around current events, where we’ll discuss more emotions you may be experiencing and recommended coping strategies.
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.