The 2020 United States presidential election has injected even more uncertainty into society at a time when the coronavirus is on the rise again across the world.
With ballots still being counted, the electorate remains in limbo – a state of mind that can introduce great anxiety.
That anxiety was documented in a recent survey commissioned by the American Psychological Association. It found that more than two-thirds of U.S. adults, regardless of political affiliation, said the election has introduced significant stress into their lives. That is a significant increase from the 2016 election, when 52% of surveyed adults said they were stressed out.
Bethany Teachman, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, is an expert in managing anxiety. UVA Today reached out to her for advice on managing the stress introduced by the presidential election.
Q. People are already overwhelmed with the uncertainty of the pandemic. How do we take on additional uncertainty and still function?
A. This is an incredibly challenging time, with multiple stressors and sources of uncertainty. There are a number of things we can do to help manage our emotional health during this time.
- First, we need to take breaks from news coverage and social media and focus on some of our “regular life” activities. It becomes very overwhelming to stay immersed in one nerve-wracking story after another, so we need times to refresh, and to think about and do other things.
- Second, it helps to remind ourselves that uncertainty means we don’t know – it does not mean the worst outcome will happen. Most of us are not good at being patient and find tolerating uncertainty highly anxiety-provoking, but recognizing the tendency toward catastrophic thinking is an important step to manage this time.
- Third, it is important to remind ourselves that we are resilient, and we can and will deal with whatever the results are and problem-solve accordingly. We can be deeply distressed by an outcome and still recognize that we have the personal resources to deal with the challenges that come our way. This allows us to be saddened, but not paralyzed, by tough outcomes. After all, we actually manage uncertainty frequently in our lives – not typically on this scale, but we routinely don’t know what our work and relationships will look like moving forward.
- Fourth, we need to take time care for ourselves – healthy eating, sleep, exercise, getting outside and connecting (in safe ways) with our support system is essential because this is a marathon, not a sprint, and we are already feeling very depleted from the strains of this year.
- Fifth, some compassion for ourselves and others is in order; it has to be OK that we are not quite as productive or effective as normal. That doesn’t mean we give in to despair and stay in bed all day, but judging ourselves and others for not being at our best adds an extra layer of stress that is not helpful.
Q. Why is uncertainty so stressful?
A. Uncertainty is incredibly stressful for many of us because we constantly seek to form narratives and find meaning. So when we don’t have a complete script, we tend to add our own endings. If we’re anxious or overwhelmed, the ending we add in our mind is likely to reflect that state of mind, so we assign a worst-case scenario ending.
We have some choice, though, in the meanings we assign to situations when we don’t have all the information. The goal is not to try to think positively all the time – that would not be credible or adaptive – but to think flexibly and recognize that there are multiple perspectives and different possible outcomes. That allows us to prepare appropriately without automatically assuming the worst possible outcome. This in turn gives us some sense of control, making it just a little easier to manage the stress of uncertainty.
Q. What physical sensations might be going on in your body that are symptoms of anxiety and even trauma?
A. Many people will be feeling tension in their body, muscle aches, possibly headaches, and digestive problems tied to the stress we are under; these are common symptoms of generalized anxiety. For those who are feeling acute stress, it is common to also feel a racing heart and even shortness of breath and shakiness.
Q. What tips do you have to manage them?
A. A big step to managing these symptoms is to recognize that they are normal, so that they don’t themselves become a source of fear and catastrophizing. The other piece is to do the self-care strategies I mentioned – healthy eating, sleep, and exercise, along with relaxation and mindfulness exercises, can all help to manage the physical consequences of the stress we’re experiencing.
Q. What if your fears come true?
A. Sometimes bad things do happen, and many of us feel devastated at the state of our country and the challenges facing the world right now. There are no easy answers to the problems facing us right now.
What we can do is think about how we take small steps to move forward. We may not be able to solve all the problems, but what can we do to make this day easier for our child who feels confused, our neighbor who feels anguished, our students who feel exhausted and for ourselves? And how can we provide support to individuals and communities who are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, economic crisis, racial injustice and political uncertainties?
It will not feel this way forever, and humans have shown time and time again that we are resilient and will move forward. This doesn’t mean we pretend bad things aren’t happening or that we don’t grieve and honor the pain we’re experiencing; it means that we don’t get stuck there. Grief and gratitude can co-exist, just as we can take time to slow down while still moving forward.
Q. Do you have any parting advice?
A. I encourage people not to struggle alone during this time. We are already dealing with lots of isolation, and the added stress of the election makes it all the more important that we reach out and connect with others to recognize that this is a shared challenge.
In addition, if the anxiety, sadness, insomnia or anger persists and starts to substantially impair functioning, I encourage people to take advantage of the many resources available in our community. There are lots of resources listed and available for faculty and staff through the Faculty & Employee Assistance Program and for students through Counseling & Psychological Services.
In addition, there are many online apps that can provide relaxation, mindfulness exercises, supports to address insomnia, or guidance in how to re-evaluate anxious thinking.
Further, our lab is testing MindTrails, a free, online intervention to help reduce anxious thinking. There are also many national and local distress lines that can provide some immediate support, as well as helpful links to find a therapist if anxiety has become more chronic and is impairing functioning in an ongoing way; see this resource list.
For now, we wait for the results to be counted and try to find meaning in the connections we have and try not to assign meanings that assume the worst and doubt our ability to cope.