6 strategies to protect your mental health during the 2020 election
"We'll see in ourselves coping skills that we didn't realize that we had."
The 2020 election results and their potential aftershocks are unfolding against a backdrop of already-poor mental health.
According to an American Psychological Association survey, more than two-thirds of U.S. adults say that the 2020 U.S. presidential election is a significant source of stress in their life, a stark uptick compared to the 2016 presidential election when 52 percent said the same.
This rise, while troubling, isn't necessarily surprising: From a pandemic to an economic recession, 2020 has been a year of cascading traumas. Luckily, psychologists tell Inverse we don't have to be passive victims in the face of such profound uncertainty.
To navigate the 2020 election and its fallout — regardless of the outcome— people can apply resilience psychology strategies and, just maybe, come out on the other side stronger than before.
To move forward and stay mentally healthy, experts suggest six specific strategies. Two are especially relevant for the emotional upheaval expected from a particularly fraught election. Four are smart strategies one should keep in mind daily, regardless of current events.
"We don't know how bad things are going to get."
Since June, the phone at the practice of Jelena Kecmanovic has been ringing off the hook. She's a clinical psychologist who treats patients near Washington, D.C. Originally, her patients came with pandemic concerns. Now, they are worried about the election.
"I hear more and more people just saying that they're reaching a breaking point like, 'I just can't handle reading another thing about it or talking about it with anyone,'" Kecmanovic tells Inverse.
That breaking point likely stems from 2020's events exacerbating preexisting problems.
Roxane Silver is a professor of psychological science at UC Irvine who studies collective trauma. Silver describes 2020 as a "slow-moving disaster" — an incomparable event that's uniquely challenging.
"We don't know how bad things are going to get, and we don't know how long things are gonna last," Silver tells Inverse. "I think that the ambiguity is, in some ways, more stressful than the actual outcome might be."
Emotional resilience strategies: 2 for the election
While outside forces might be ambiguous and unpredictable, what you can have some control over is yourself.
Helen Weng is a clinical psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco. She spoke with Inverse about a strategy that is especially useful in the midst of political — and emotional — turbulence. We must simply feel our feelings, Weng says.
"Coping with fears involves acknowledging the fear, and calling on the courage to address the fear," Weng says.
"There is no courage without feeling fear in the first place. Courage involves willful action that is in response to the fear."
In action, that could look like becoming politically involved or talking with your coworkers about how to address systemic racism, Weng says. But before you can turn your emotions into actions, you have to first accept and experience your feelings.
One misconception about control is that being exceptionally informed will ease anxiety. While seeking information is a common strategy, because the information received is often still ambiguous it doesn't much help, Silver says.
This opens the door to another strategy: Make a plan for digesting the news. This means no doom-scrolling or hours watching round the clock TV news.
Weng recommends setting aside 15 minutes in the morning to read up on the latest news, then some time to process the info with a friend or partner. If you want to engage with evening news coverage, exercise or meditate beforehand.
Throughout this time, it's also empowering to channel your emotions around what's happening — the rage, despair, hopelessness, stress — into proactive action to build the future.
"In this time when so many things are at stake, we need to do something active politically — in any form small or large — so that we don’t feel hopeless," Weng says. The first steps can feel overwhelming on your own, so it's helpful to connect to a larger organization or other friends or family, she adds.
Emotional resilience strategies: 4 for every-day life
Exercising: Staying active can help you "channel stressful feelings and translate them into a form of action," Weng says.
"We all need periods for physical activity, doing things we enjoy, and connecting with people we care about. Make sure that is built into your week."
Getting outside: Nature provides an "amazing source of transcendence," Kecmanovic says.
In action, this could look like sitting in your backyard, playing with your kids, gardening, or going to a park. Focusing on "sources of transcendence" — like trees and rivers — can remind you that, no matter what happens, certain forces will remain the same, she says.
Taking some time for yourself: Disengaging, decompressing, practicing mindfulness, and taking time to do something you enjoy will also quell election anxiety. Silver acknowledges that this isn't always easy — but it is critical.
"Trying to be sure that we're sleeping, and eating good meals, getting outside — these are all important ways to take care of ourselves," she says.
Staying socially connected: Going at it alone can be isolating and make election anxiety worse. One of the best ways to navigate this time is staying connected. Organize a socially distant coffee or walk, or call a friend.
Moving forward — Ultimately, although this period is marked by sometimes overwhelming stress, it also offers space for growth.
This crisis throws us out of our "everydayness," Kecmanovic says, making people reevaluate their whole way of being. "When things are discombobulated, there's a chance to put the pieces back together in a better way," she says.
Silver, who's studied trauma for decades, believes "we will come through to the other side." There can (and will) be pain along the way, but humans are resilient, she says. We may find ourselves using "coping skills that we didn't realize that we had."
And on the other side of upheaval, there could be good.
"We should remember that there have been so many times of political upheaval in world history, and those people were able to go through it and hopefully build a better society," Weng says.
"It may feel like things are breaking down, but sometimes things need to break down in order for something stronger to replace it."