This story appears in STYLECASTER’s Activism Issue, starring Jurnee Smollett. Click here for more.
I need a drink. I’ve never been so stressed. That was terrifying. My anxiety is through the roof. These are just some of the texts and messages I received from friends following the first presidential debate of the 2020 election season. Personally, I was feeling all of the above and then some, and while it was comforting to know that I wasn’t alone in my despair, it brought to my attention the fact that my loved ones and I were not mentally prepared to handle a negative outcome in the upcoming election. It was through our collective post-debate trauma that I realized the importance of preserving mental health during election season—and the reality of just how damaging things can get if we don’t take this seriously.
2020 has been a trying time for virtually everyone, and it’s safe to say the global pandemic and resulting quarantine took (and continues to take) a toll on the emotional wellness of many. With that in mind, it was hard not to feel like we were entering this high-stakes election season with our defenses down and our anxiety up.
Psychotherapist Dr. Daryl Appleton agrees: “There is an increase of overall feelings of unease and stress during most elections, but particularly 2020,” she says. “I think this ‘Political Anxiety Disorder’ (as I am calling it) is particularly strong this year with COVID-19 and being shut off from external distractions—like travel and restaurants—and more drawn into our screens, social media, TV, etc.”
Still, it’s not just the added stress of the pandemic weighing on our minds. As Trump and Biden face off (and bicker incessantly throughout the debates), this election grows even more heated, with the country more politically divided than perhaps ever before. “This Political Anxiety also seems to manifest because it is the same reality show that everyone is watching,” Dr. Appleton explains. “We all know the characters, we all know the drama, and everyone has an opinion. It’s like going into work and gossiping about the most recent Housewives episode, except the stakes are much higher and the drama and repercussions are international.”
Over the past few months (OK, the last four years), I’ve had many friends admit to struggling when it comes to the balance of staying informed and preserving their mental health. When I encouraged my Instagram followers to watch the first presidential debate, a few reached out to say they simply “couldn’t handle it.”
They claimed it was too emotionally overwhelming, then admitted to a second wave of stress brought on by the feeling of being uninformed for not tuning in. It was a cycle of anxiety, stress and guilt, and it broke my heart. To know better is to do better, but when acknowledging the issues at hand leaves you crippled with despair, how can you possibly move on and move forward?
Dr. Appleton answers with a simple yet striking analogy: “If you don’t chew your food, you are at an increased risk of choking. The same can be said when digesting politics,” she says. “Make sure you ‘chew’ everything thoroughly. Don’t swallow everything you are fed. Allow yourself to critically think on topics and discussions relating to politics. This will allow you to hopefully filter out certain things that may overwhelm you.”
Unfortunately, we can’t put off addressing our emotional well-being until after November 3 rolls around and the polls close. “Any unbridled stress (of any kind) does not clear up on its own. It’s not a zit,” insists Dr. Appleton. “It needs to be addressed and looked at in a way that allows for a person to fully explore this fear, anger and anxiety, and develop skills to manage these emotions.”
Jay Bradley, a breathwork teacher and healer as well as creator of Chakra Balms, is quick to point out the potentially damaging effects of not preserving our mental health now, before things get even more intense. “We are noticing many more people getting ill and having emotional breakdowns. This happens when we don’t regularly tune in to what our body, mind and spirit need,” Bradley says. “A buildup of stress, along with an attachment to outcome or expectations, always leads to disappointment. Stress itself leads to numerous health issues, which in turn can cause long-term damage and even death. We need to learn to manage our stress and tune in before it takes over.
Bradley also insists that people shouldn’t feel as though they’re being selfish for focusing on their own self-preservation at this time. “From a spiritual perspective, when we work on ourselves and when we learn to love, forgive and be more gentle, the world around us benefits as well,” he says. “Our focus should always be to continue to help ourselves first and foremost, and doing this during election time is more important than ever.”
While bubble baths and spa days are essential, they can be band-aids on the proverbial bullet holes of mental health and wellness.
Although therapy and counseling have become largely normalized amongst millennials and their peers, too many of my friends’ so-called self-care routines dwindle down to a single night in, signed out of any social media apps and left to unwind via bubble bath and detoxifying face mask. I worry that we substitute these aesthetically pleasing, physical acts of self-care for the true emotional exploration necessary to cope with and get through our struggles, especially as the election approaches.
“When I work with my clients on wellness, I typically frame ‘self-care’ as anything that relates to building a life you do not want to escape from,” says Dr. Appleton. “So while bubble baths and spa days are essential, they can be band-aids on the proverbial bullet holes of mental health and wellness. We need to take time and reflect on what we need, and how we feel about events in our lives.”
I’m sorry to report that even the most luxurious of skincare routines won’t completely soothe your stressors—you need to be proactive in seeking out real ways to protect your mental health and emotional wellness. That said, no one should be shamed out of a spa day or time off as a means of coping. So long as you’re also tackling your stressors and anxieties head-on, there’s no reason not to couple that approach with more indulgent, relaxing emotional outlets.
Of course, the best way to avoid succumbing to election stress is to prepare yourself in advance, and to have effective coping mechanisms at the ready. Dr. Appleton says it best: “Go talk to someone. 2020 is HARD. You do not get extra points for trying to white-knuckle it through life right now, or ever.”
With this in mind, she strongly encourages anyone feeling overwhelmed to seek out professional guidance. “Therapy or coaching doesn’t mean you are broken, or that you will be in it forever; it just means that you have 45-60 minutes in your week or month that gets to be 100% about you. I am not sure where else that can ever happen.”
If you’re looking to treat yourself without a therapist’s aid, sometimes it can be as simple as just turning off the TV and signing out of Twitter, if only for a few hours. “Make sure you have other interests outside of watching/talking/thinking about politics,” suggests Dr. Appleton. “There is so much more to life than this election, and while monumental, it is still important to give attention to the more micro aspects of our individual lives.”
You do not get extra points for trying to white-knuckle it through life right now, or ever.
Bradley has some ideas of his own on how people can seek relief from excess election season stress. “As a breathwork teacher and healer, I always suggest that people adopt a deep breathing practice. There are numerous styles available, but find one that resonates with you,” he advises. “This is the only practice that I know which re-wires the brain and permanently shifts people into a more positive and relaxed space.”
A healthy mind looks different for everyone, but one thing is for sure: as election season continues, many of us will be pushed to the extremes as we undergo arguably the most high-stakes presidential election our country has ever seen. While you look out for your fellow Americans, please remember to look out for yourself, too. Your emotional well-being matters, and preserving it now ensures you’ll be around to make positive strides for our country in the future.