• Coping with Election Uncertainty and Distress

    Regardless of your political preferences and views, the 2020 election has brought unprecedented stress and anxiety to Americans nationwide. The Covid-19 pandemic has magnified a sense of threat to our safety that is compounded by the uncertainty of not knowing who the next leaders will be and where our country will be heading the next four years. As we face this ambiguity, we tend to engage in negative thinking about ourselves, the world and the future. Even those of us who would usually define ourselves as optimistic and relaxed, have experienced this phenomenon. As Dr. Rick Hansen explains in his best seller book “Buddha’s Brain,” our mind has a natural tendency to scan for the negative to wear off possible threats and ensure our survival. The “negativity bias of the brain,” as he labels it, is hard wired into our biology. What better scenario to trigger the anxiety response than the collision of three pandemics, namely the 2020 election, racial disparities and COVID-19. The anxiety that we experience is a built-in mechanism to ensure our safety, but it does come with an emotional and relational cost! Thankfully, there are practical things we can do to better cope with the uncertainties that we face:

    Take Care of Your Body
    The stress response, anchored in our sympathetic system, unfolds and is felt in our bodies. When our brain identifies a threat, a myriad of stress hormones and physiological changes unfold to fight the perceived threat or flee for safety. To manage your anxiety response, make a conscientious effort to engage your parasympathetic system, the body’s relaxation response. This can be done in a planned and premeditated manner:

    1. Breathe:
    The single more effective and efficient way to decrease your stress response is deep breathing. It is recommended that you set aside 10 to 15 minutes every morning to focus on your breath. And for some, it would mean getting up 15 minutes earlier.
    – Engaged in diaphragmatic breathing by placing your hand on your stomach and pushing the abdominal wall in every breath-in.
    – Slow down the speed of your breath. Try to breathe-in through your nose slowly to a count of 4, hold your breath to a count of 2, and breathe out slowly through your mouth as if you were pushing the air through a narrow straw. Another strategy you can use to slow your breathing is to imagine yourself inflating and deflating a big balloon in every breath.

    2. Make healthy eating choices:
    Decrease the intake of process foods and sugars that trigger insulin spikes and decrease your caffeine consumption. Caffeine is a stimulant that crosses the brain barrier in seconds. It reduces the adenosine levels, which fosters relaxation and rest, and increases the release of stress hormones. Caffeine increases our chances of feeling agitated and anxious.

    3. Engage in physical activity:
    Exercise reduces stress hormones, improves mood, and decreases anxious anticipation. Set a daily routine and schedule 20 minutes of physical activity. Build exercise into a routine so that you get it done. You can do this by taking few minutes to plan your days and putting exercise into your schedule, similar to how you schedule meetings and other tasks that you need to get done.

    Take Care of Your Mind
    1. Be mindful
    Pay attention to your experience moment by moment. Simply notice. Tune into your senses, see what they bring into your body from your environment. Listen to the body sensations and stay focused on where you are and what you are doing. As your thoughts come in, make a conscious effort to notice them with an attitude of unconditional acceptance, without judging or engaging them, and let them run their course. Observe your thought from a distance, as clouds slowly moving in the sky and watch them go in the background.

    2. Decrease your media exposure
    While it is commonplace to be constantly connected to our phones and computers to check messages, news and notifications, and believing that doing so will decrease our anxiety, the opposite is true. Constantly scanning and exposing ourselves to news lead to hyper-vigilance and stress. The problem is that our neurobiology is not designed to sustain constant stress. Limit checking news outlets and social media to once or twice a day, at a predetermine time.

    3. Focus on areas of your life that you have control
    Unless you are counting ballots, the election, at this point, is out of your control. Set a list of tasks you want to complete in your day and focus on them. Instead of multitasking, monotask, addressing one task at a time. Once you accomplish a task, mark the completion. If you celebrate the small triumph in some way, positive feelings will evolve.

    4. Be aware of catastrophic thinking.
    Anxiety usually unfolds when we think in terms of worst-case scenarios. Although it seems that we are preparing to manage negative events in the future, these predictions do not protect us. Instead, they foster anxious anticipation and distress and interfere with our ability to cope and be productive. Consider the caveats of catastrophic outcomes and examine past evidence of how you have coped with adversity. After all, you are still here!

    Stay Connected with Friends and Family
    Be present in the lives of those that matter to you and seek out those you appreciate and who you find supportive. Make a point to express your gratitude for their presence in your life and share with them things you like and even admire about them. Invite others to express their concerns and opinion and listen with an empathetic ear using your own experience to understand theirs. This will, in turn, give you the ground to express your own emotional struggles and increase your sense of being heard, understood, and connected. Even though it would be preferable to be able to have gatherings without needing to observe social distancing, close connections to people important to us are still possible in a Covid-19 world. Make a point to express the value others have in your life…. Yes, at a distance, with a mask, or in a virtual setting.

    This year has been a hard year for all of us. The uncertainty brought out by opposing political views, the threat of a deadly pandemic, and the social unrest that has unfolded, has touched us all. Feeling anxious and exposed is a natural response to unfamiliar and uncertain circumstances. Noticing how we have gotten through difficult situations in the past can provide confidence in our ability to overcome current adversity.

    The self-help strategies presented above may provide you with the tools necessary to weather this difficult time. However, if you’re struggling and feel that you might need professional mental health assistance, therapists at the Good Life Center for Mental Health are here to help. To learn more about our services, please visit our website at https://www.goodlifecenternj.com, call us at 908-956-7880 or email us at [email protected].

    Authored by:

    Silvina Levine, MSW, LCSW
    Licensed Clinical Social Worker
    NJ License # 44SC04613000
    Managing Partner, Good Life Center for Mental Health, LLC
    312 North Avenue East
    Suite C08
    Cranford, NJ 07016
    Direct Tel/Fax: (908) 484-4644

    1. Hanson, R., & Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

    2. Hudson, Sally (2017): Mindfulness-Meditation-Reference-Books.pdf. figshare. Journal contribution. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.5165626.v1

    3. Burns, D. D. (1999). Feeling good: the new mood therapy. Rev. and updated. New York: Avon Books.

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