As the 2020 election crawls closer and closer, you may feel a heightened sense of anxiety. Actually who am I kidding — you’re definitely feeling a heightened sense of anxiety. And you’re not alone. You’re experiencing something known as Election Stress Disorder…and it’s not pretty.
Steven Stosny, PhD, founder of CompassionPower, first coined the term during the tumultuous 2016 election (that I try oh-so-hard to forget). And while it’s not a diagnosable ailment, he says this year, it’s even worse. That’s because before everyone and their mothers had iPhones, you’d only watch political news on the news, and at limited times. Now, thanks to technology, we’re inundated with politics and distressing news 24/7 — thus, Election Stress Disorder is born.
Of course, ESD is also likely heightened right now because of… *gestures vaguely at 2020*. It’s a side effect of our inability to control issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the wildfires raging on the West Coast, and the ongoing violence against vulnerable communities, including Black and trans people. This makes us feel powerless, Dr. Stosny said.
Those in marginalized populations may have a heightened sense of Election Stress Disorder, due to the significant repercussions this upcoming election could have on immigration, police reform, and the LGBTQ+ community.
“The main thing is to recognize that we’re all feeling it,” Alfiee Breland-Noble, PhD, psychologist, author, founder of mental health nonprofit the AAKOMA Project and host of the podcast "Couched In Color with Dr. Alfiee," told Refinery29. “The stress is not unique to any one individual, because there’s so much riding on the outcome regardless of your political affiliation.”
Election stress is especially draining because there’s almost no refuge, Dr. Breland-Noble added. “You can’t go to anybody and complain. The people who agree with your political viewpoints are stressed about the same things you are,” she said. And the people who disagree with you? Trying to talk sense into them will probably only raise your stress levels even more.
With the right tools, though, we can protect ourselves from the damaging effects of ESD. It just takes intention and commitment. Ahead, we lay out nine strategies that are designed to help ease your tension. We can’t promise you’ll feel totally zen in the days leading up to Election Day — but you’ll be inching a little closer to calm. And in 2020, we’ll take what we can get.
Do a digital detox — but don’t go overboard.
Obvious? Maybe. But it bears repeating, because few people actually take breaks from their digital devices, and it’s easily the most powerful thing you can do to dial down stress.
But the key is not to try to go totally dark. “Don’t cut yourself off cold turkey or you’ll worry about what’s going on,” Dr. Stosny warned. Instead, set time limits around your digital consumption: Give yourself a certain time in the day where you're allowed to check the news and social media, and cut yourself off before bed. Dr. Breland-Noble suggests the app Moment to help curb your screen time.
“When [the internet] is anxiety-provoking, your brain is secreting cortisol, a stimulant to help you deal with stress,” Dr. Stosny explained. Cortisol is meant to dip at night. Staying away from news in the evening can help improve your ability to drift off, and a good night’s sleep can actually help make you more resilient to stress.
Another trick? Curate your social media feed. Yes, that means clearing out all your hate-follows — including your former high school classmates who love to share misinformation on Facebook (or is that just me?).
“You know you’re not going to stay off completely, so make sure that what’s showing up is something you like,” Dr. Breland-Noble said. “Set your feed so that the only things that have the opportunity to show up are things that make you happy.” That doesn’t mean you have to delete anyone who disagrees with you (sometimes, it’s useful to see fresh viewpoints). But mute anyone whose posts consistently tick you off.
Spend some quality time with your loved ones (those who don’t stress you out).
Dr. Stosny said that connection is one of the main antidotes to Election Stress Disorder. Creating and nurturing the bonds you have with loved ones is good for your mental health.
“Everybody needs a squad, a crew,” Dr. Breland-Noble said. “You cannot function alone in this world, especially under these circumstances. It has to be good, healthy support. And you contribute to that by building positive interactions and positivity into your relationships with your loved ones.”
Both Dr. Stosny and Dr. Breland-Noble said that your crew can include people who agree or disagree with you politically. But the key is to surround yourself with people who don’t spike your stress levels. Right now, it’s fine to avoid people who do, for whatever reason. It’s also fine to sometimes put a moratorium on political talk during get-togethers, so you can focus on being present for your relationships in a way that nourishes and relaxes you instead.
Find time to meditate.
I know, I know — this sounds so cliché. But just like setting boundaries around your tech use, meditating helps. (Really — science says so.) Just get clear on what it really entails. “If you’ve never been a meditator, don’t expect to sit down and go for 30 minutes in complete silence,” Dr. Breland-Noble said. “Start with a minute.” You can check out our 30-day meditation challenge, which is designed for meditation newbies.
Giving your mind some time in the day to rest and restore itself is essential for keeping your mental health in check.
Write down your thoughts.
“When we’re nervous or anxious, our thoughts race. They go by very fast,” Dr. Stosny said. “The faster they go, the more overwhelming they seem.” Jotting down your thoughts helps interrupt the spiral, and slow your mind down. Dr. Stosny recommends using a pen and paper for this exercise instead of typing your thoughts out on your phone. The old-school method activates more prefrontal cortex neurons, which helps regulate your stress response. The more you know!
Make the most out of your comfort food.
Don’t worry, this tip is not about avoiding comfort food. Comfort food is great! Mine is Oreos. I love them, and they make me feel better.
Dr. Breland-Noble does recommend, however, paying attention to your eating habits and really focusing on eating in a way that makes you feel good. Eating Oreos while scrolling through my cleaned-up Instagram feed before bed, after a stressful day when I need a little pick-me-up? It makes me feel good! Eating a few right out of the box for breakfast while I stress-google voter registration info, knowing that in a few minutes I’ll have a headache and a stomachache? It does not make me feel good. I could stand to do more of the former, and less of the latter.
Eating is personal, and everyone’s best practices are different — sometimes your own will change day to day. “It’s about being intentional when you eat — and forgiving yourself for not being able to be intentional all the time,” Dr. Breland-Noble noted.
At least try to get enough rest.
I know it’s easier said than done these days! But you can do it: Try scheduling a bedtime in your phone, with an alarm and everything. Treat it like an appointment you’re keeping with yourself to encourage you to hit the hay at a reasonable time. Or, take up napping. Remember that?
“You want your brain in the best position to be able to support you throughout your day,” Dr. Breland-Noble said. “Your brain needs rest just like your body needs rest.” She said that if you don’t give your brain rest, you start the day at a deficit — sleep gives you an opportunity to do a reset, so in the morning you’re starting at a place of more calm and less stress.
“If you really give yourself the opportunity to get ample sleep, when you wake up the next day you’re starting with less stress than the day before because your mind just had a break,” she said.
Go outside and get some exercise.
Another no-brainer — but sometimes we all need a nudge. “There are clinical studies that demonstrate that there is a direct link — the more exercise you do, the less stress you have,” Dr. Breland-Noble said. Whether it’s doing a full-blown workout or just going for a walk around your block, getting your body to move will turn your election stress — and any other kind of stress — down immensely.
It’s easy to go off on a tangent inside your mind, imagining what the world will be like if we have a repeat of the last four years (or worse). Dr. Breland-Noble said it's important to work on cultivating what’s called our “right mind.”
“Cultivating your right mind means that every day you take the time to give your mind a break, however you need to do that,” she explained. “It doesn’t have to be criss-cross applesauce on a yoga mat. It can be going outside for a walk. It can be playing the music that you like. It’s cooking, baking, whatever it is for you. It’s cultivating that right mind so that you don’t get pulled off in different directions with people feeding you stuff that’s going to trigger you.” Namely, the news, your friends, your family members, social media. If you allow these things to drag you off-course, you will be stressed about the election, she said: “Focus on day-to-day, moment-to-moment interactions.”
Dr. Breland-Noble said that for anxious people, the worry comes when they think too far ahead about what might happen that they have no control over, or they worry too much about stuff that’s already happened that they can’t change. “We can’t pay attention to what’s going to happen in  days. But you can focus on today, where you are in this moment. If I can stay rooted in this moment and stay present, that reduces my propensity to yield to the stress that comes with worrying about what’s going to happen,” she said.
Take control of what you can.
One major aspect of Election Stress Disorder is the feeling that the outcome is out of your control. And while yes, it’s important to acknowledge that we alone can’t change a nationwide election, we can make an effort.
The starting point is: Register to vote, and vote. (Good thing we just made a handy guide for you to do that!) Beyond that, “Do whatever you can: Write letters, go to demonstrations, lobby Congress,” Dr. Stosny said. You can’t control everything — but together with others, you can be part of a movement that brings about change.
We know the stakes are high. We can’t promise that everything’s going to be okay. All we can do is encourage you to do what you can to take care of yourself right now. Do what you can to fill up your fuel tank, so you have something to dip into in the months and years ahead.