It’s nearly impossible these days to avoid the tension that comes with talking of politics whether you’re at home, at work, or out in public. I’ve had strangers make disparaging comments about political candidates assuming that I agree with their political viewpoint. You’ve probably had similar uncomfortable experiences. While this is a fairly typical occurrence for an election year, it’s fair to say the tension this year is particularly heightened for a variety of reasons ranging from the pandemic, to the issues headlining this election, and to the candidates themselves.
Emotions are very high, and many people are experiencing stress and anxiety related to the upcoming election and its outcome. For many, it can be difficult to hear election news or talk about it with others because of this stress. And the fact that having a constructive dialogue instead of a heated argument is rare these days, the saying, “Don’t talk about politics and religion” seems more applicable than ever.
So how do you manage without letting the stress and anxiety get to you? As a therapist, I can offer some practical tips to help you weather this election week in peace.
Pay attention and respond to your reactions
Not only does the COVID-19 pandemic already have many Americans on edge and more isolated, some topics brought up by the presidential candidates can be triggering in significant ways. The topic of the treatment of women and sexual assault has been much embroiled with our political discussions, and the topic of abortion raises a lot of emotions as well. It’s fair to say that when we feel overwhelmed by a political topic it might not just be because of views we disagree with; it could be that the topic touches on a raw nerve—perhaps even one relating to personal trauma. When you identify with a topic in a deeply personal way or have been affected personally, it can be hard to remain calm and not become physically and emotionally distressed by these topics.
When topics come up that give you a strong reaction such as muscle tension, racing thoughts, difficulty sleeping, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, intense emotions (such as sadness, anger, fear), sweating, difficulty breathing, digestive issues, (this is not an exhaustive list or a diagnostic one), it’s important that you prioritize returning to a sense of safety.
If you find yourself feeling this way, one of the most important things you can do is help return your body and brain to a calm state. In other words, when you are having a strong reaction to something, your sympathetic nervous system is activated (aka, your "fight or flight" response) and so you want to activate your parasympathetic nervous system ("rest and digest") to help return to a state of safety and calm. Simple strategies for activating your parasympathetic nervous system include deep breathing, mindful exercise, drawing, singing, and dancing.
Try not to take other people’s different views as a vote against you
When an issue hits home on a deeply personal level, it can feel like a loved one’s disagreement on the issue is like a personal attack on you. It can feel like your loved one is devaluing your experience and minimizing how you’ve been affected. This may be why some people feel if a loved one votes for a candidate they don’t agree with, it is a vote against them.
Of course in a democracy where we value the freedom to vote as one chooses and the privacy of the voting booth, we should take care not to accuse people who vote differently than us of making an attack on us (that could wander into manipulative territory); but we should explore why we feel attacked.
While it is easy to take things personally, it can be helpful to remember that there can be a variety of reasons why someone thinks differently than you. For example, they may not be aware of the way that particular issue can impact someone on a personal level, or perhaps they are not in a place where they are able to consider that someone else could feel differently. Keep in mind that, while these are possible explanations, they are just that: explanations and not excuses. It’s helpful to remember that another person’s experiences, thoughts, and opinions do not devalue your own. As difficult as it might be to do in reality, you can honor your lived experience and acknowledge that someone else might have a totally different experience without invalidating your own.
If you’ve experienced trauma or find yourself affected by political topics in unexpected ways, don’t be afraid to reach out to a qualified mental health professional for help. They can help you identify, process, and heal from any trauma or strong reactions you’ve experienced in a safe and empowering way. You don’t have to struggle alone and there are effective ways to help from any kind of trauma.
Avoid worst-case-scenario thinking
And finally, it can be helpful to be mindful of the way you are thinking about the election. If you are thinking about it as “make or break” or “the end of the world as we know it,” this can add to the stress and anxiety you might be experiencing.
While it is important not to devalue the issues that are important and relevant to our democracy, it’s helpful to remember that our country has gone through extraordinary changes and challenges throughout our history and survived them all. Focusing on doing what you can (doing your research and voting for the candidates who you think will do the best job, volunteering for campaigns that align with your values, and encouraging others to vote for the candidate they think is best) instead of focusing on what’s out of your control, can help you to rebalance your thinking from worst-case-scenario to empowering yourself and others to do what you can.
Manage your digital consumption
There’s nothing like peacefully scrolling through images of beautiful homes and cute animals on your newsfeed only to be bombarded by an inflammatory post related to politics to rob you of your precious sense of peace. How is it that one social media post can trigger us so badly?
It’s somewhat obvious to say this, but if we want to not get thrown off our horse emotionally by what we see when scrolling, we need to be selective with what we consume. We can curate our social media feeds to limit what we’re exposed to. If you find you’re “doom-scrolling” more at night, you can cut off your social media use after 8 p.m. You can choose who you follow and who you don’t follow; so don’t be afraid to temporarily (or permanently!) mute or unfollow anyone who is being inflammatory. While it is important to be open to constructive dialogue with those who hold opposing views, there’s no rule that says you have to allow name-calling and other bad behavior on your feed no matter where they fall on the political spectrum. If unfollowing someone is not an option (maybe it’s a family member or close friend), consider muting their account until the election is over.
Similarly, news outlets’ job is to sell stories, so it makes sense that the more dramatic and urgent-sounding the story is, the higher ratings they’ll get. If you feel your stress levels climb when you consume content from a certain news outlet, remember that while you can’t change the news, you can change your exposure to the outlet you choose or the amount of content you read.
It’s important to note that this is not the same thing as turning a blind eye to the important issues of our day. We cannot address problems such as injustice, the pandemic, or war by simply ignoring them. But being an informed and engaged citizen does not require us to be constant consumers of news. If there is a specific issue or topic you want to know more about, research it while being mindful that you aren’t getting sucked into an internet black hole of negativity. This way, you are able to control how and when you see what’s on the news or what a particular candidate says.
Don’t be afraid to say what you need in conversations
Boundaries are your best friend when you are trying to manage stress and anxiety and cultivate peace in your life, and they can be very useful when you find yourself in a situation where everyone is talking politics. A simple, “I’d prefer if we didn’t discuss politics today” is a friendly but direct way to set a clear boundary, and it lets everyone know exactly where you stand. (Alternatively, you can always just change the subject.)
If you’d like to be able to talk politics in a constructive and respectful way, setting a boundary could look like saying, “I’m really interested to hear what you have to say, but if you continue to make disparaging remarks about the opposing side, I won’t continue discussing this with you.” These are just suggestions you can put in your own words, so that it feels authentic to you.
Elections matter, but so does your mental health. We owe it to ourselves to do what we can to make our vote heard, as well as our needs.