How to Cope with Post-Election Stress

We might not know the results on election night. Here, tips for dealing with the anxious aftermath from two psychologists.

By Caitlin Kilgore
post-election stress

This year's pandemic-era presidential election is atypical in so many ways — including the timing of the results. On Tuesday, November 3, "it’s very possible that we will go to bed not knowing who has won the presidential election," according to FiveThirtyEight

Some states have slower processes to count votes than others, while other states will continue to count mail-in ballots for days after Election Day. Long story short, unless either candidate unexpectedly sweeps certain key states, chances are neither will hit the 270 electoral votes needed to win on election night. 

To add fuel to the stressful fire, if the election is close, recent rhetoric from the President paints the picture that he won’t commit to a peaceful transfer of power.  

So how do we quell anxiety while we wait? Below, two psychologists weigh in. And if you're looking for a live (virtual) group experience, join our Election Edition Support Circle on November 4.

How to Handle the Waiting Game

Waiting for elections results is never easy, especially with so many variables playing a part this season. According to Akilah Reynolds, PhD, psychologist and mental wellness expert, easing anxiety begins with radical acceptance. What this means: “Even though we may not like what’s happening, accepting that something is what it is can help us to focus on the things that we can accept and help settle our emotions,” says Reynolds. 

Plus, remember that old adage that worrying is kind of like a rocking chair — it gives you something to do, but it won't get you anywhere. “At this point, worrying isn’t doing us any good," says Annie Miller, LCSW, a psychotherapist and clinical social worker. "It’s not going to change the outcome.”

According to both Miller and Reynolds, the best way to care for yourself (and others) going into and coming out of election day is to have a self-care plan to protect yourself and your mental space. Here, a five-step process to create your own post-election self-care plan.

RELATED: Do You Have Election Stress Disorder?

1

Schedule "Worry Time"

“Pick a time (away from bedtime) and let that be your designated 'worry time,'” says Miller. During that time you can look at the news and read every article you want, but keep all your worries designated for that specific time. You can even set a reminder on your phone. “It helps us redirect worrying thoughts before bed and it helps intrusive thoughts about stressors all throughout the day,” she says.

2

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is more important now than ever, explains Reynolds. “When we feel anxious, our minds are operating outside of the present moment." Below, Reynolds shares three simple strategies that can help bring you back to the present:

  • Take deep breaths. Breathing is one of the best things you can do to naturally calm yourself down and manage anxiety. Plus, it’s the one thing we have control of, no matter where we are. If you focus your mind on your breath, it centers your attention and allows you to let go of what’s causing you anxiety. Here are four exercises that can help you find calm.

  • Be still. When you're still, even just for a moment, it helps to bring down your level of anxiety. Whether it's meditation or just breathing for a bit, "I’d encourage everyone to have some sort of 'be still routine,'" Reynolds says.
  • Utilize grounding techniques. When you’re overwhelmed in the moment, use your five senses as a way to disconnect you from your present feelings and redirect your thought process. Try to name things around you, count backwards from 100 by sevens or name the capital of every state — usually by the end of exercises like that, you’re no longer thinking about the thing that made you anxious.


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3

Get Enough Sleep

Sleep is often the first thing impacted by stress, but there are tangible ways to help protect your sleep when stress is high. According to Miller, here are three ways to help sleep habits: 

  • Wake up at the same time every day. This means seven days a week, even on the weekends! Consistency is key because it helps your body build sleep drive (the likelihood of you falling asleep at any given time), which in turn helps us sleep.
  • Stop “trying” to sleep. When you’re lying in bed “trying” to sleep, your mind starts to click on, ruminate and worry. It can be a time when thoughts of the election come up and we start catastrophizing. When that happens, you want to get up out of bed, watch TV or read a book, so that you're not putting any effort towards sleep. It also helps your mind avoid making the association that your bed is where you lie awake worrying. 
  • Use your bed only for sleep. Don’t use your bed to work, read, watch TV or scroll on your phone. You can still do those things of course, just not in bed. This can help give your brain the association that your bed is only where you sleep.

RELATED: Why You’re Sleeping A Lot More (or Less) Right Now

4

Cultivate Joy

“Be intentional about creating happy moments for yourself,” Reynolds reminds us. Do what makes you feel good. Make time for play. Maybe that looks like having a family game night, or a FaceTime with friends. Even burning a candle or taking a bath can add an immediate lift to your day. “Being in nature and being physically active are wonderful for stress management,” Reynolds adds, so find ways to get outdoors and benefit from fresh air and sunlight. (Read more on how nature heals us here.)

5

Put boundaries in place with friends and family

Conversations across party lines can become particularly contentious. “If you want to have conversations with friends or family who disagree with your views, then be prepared to really listen to them," says Reynolds. That means active listening — not just listening to respond, but listening to understand. 

Also, move away from party lines where labels like “Republican” or “Democrat” are loaded with potential negativity. Focus on deeper values and calling on compassion, explains Reynolds. "There tends to be this idea that if you don’t agree with me, you’re an ‘other,’” says Reynolds, “But when we ‘other’ people we kind of dehumanize them. No one of us is one single story.”

With the election, we’re all kind of "circling our wagons" — a phrase that means people in the same group work together to protect themselves from danger, explains Reynolds, “And when you're in your respective camp, silo, echo chamber, you really only hear your voice. When you’re defensive, you can’t really hear another person’s perspective.”

“Each person has to recognize their own boundaries. As much as you may want to get into political conversations, it may not end up feeling good for you — or them,” says Miller. “If you don’t feel like you’re emotionally able to have those kinds of conversations, then agree to disagree at that moment,” says Reynolds. Miller adds, “Be empathic but try not to get caught up in overly negative conversations.”

RELATED: How to Strengthen Your Empathy Muscle

How to Cope if Your Candidate Loses 

Both Miller and Reynolds agree that the best thing to do if your candidate loses is to give yourself the time and space to feel whatever it is you’re feeling and honor those emotions. “Sit with your emotions, reflect on how you feel, process how you feel, express how you feel," Reynolds suggests. "Identify what you’re experiencing emotionally and then express that in some kind of healthy way."

This is when your self-care routine becomes vital. Find a way to express your emotions — journal, paint, talk to your friends and family. And then, do the things that fill your tank — get outside, move, nourish yourself, make room for play, listen to good music and seek out connections in a safe and healthy way, whatever that looks like for you.

“It’s easy to catastrophize and imagine worst case scenarios, but the worrying doesn't help us,” adds Miller. “Stay present with the other aspects of your life that are going well. If we let it consume us, it will consume us." If you find yourself really struggling with the outcome of the election and you’re unable to get out of negative thought spirals, Miller suggests talking to a therapist to get personalized help in dealing with the difficulty you’re experiencing.

How to Move Forward in a Proactive Way

After you’ve given yourself the time you need to process your disappointment, ask yourself how you can take action. “Figure out what your role is going to be in making the change that you want to make in this world,” says Reynolds. But remind yourself that you’re only one person. You can’t change everything, but when every person does their part, change inevitably takes place.

“Focus on whatever your small piece is and know that small piece matters,” says Reynolds. “Find some happiness, some joy, some compassion, some contentment and some peace that what you’re doing is enough.”

And finally: Don’t lose hope. 

From a psychological perspective, having hope releases positive hormones in the brain (like dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and even endorphins) that counteract the negative hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) released from stress, which can have detrimental impacts on the body over time, explains Miller adding, “Hope, joy, happiness — those are the antidote.” 

Our voting resource guide provides a list of national organizations that work hard year-round (election season or not) to serve their communities and advocate for change. You can also find a list of organizations that work to effect changes in food and nutrition policy here.

When every person does their part, change inevitably takes place.

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