'I'm a Therapist, Here Are 6 Ways You Can Handle Election Anxiety'

As a psychotherapist, I specialise in helping people manage anxiety, stress and depression. A lot of people are experiencing anxiety and stress these days. Whether you are a supporter of President Donald Trump or a Joe Biden supporter there is a lot of bewilderment at the moment with no clear election winner yet.

We look to our leaders for guidance, so our anxiety can increase because we are facing uncertainty in what has already been a very uncertain year with COVID-19. Here are six tips I suggest people try if they are experiencing stress or anxiety around the U.S. presidential election.

1. Don't catastrophize
I work in a solution-focused way with my clients, which means we don't go over problems from the past. I focus on brain function and how we can go into "fight or flight" mode when anxious. I try to teach people about the science behind brain function in mental health. So, if you're feeling anxious about the election result, understand where your anxiety is coming from. I tell my clients to think that anxiety is a survival response that is happening within them, because they are worried about something. And that is perfectly normal. But you don't want to be consumed by it. Wait for the result and don't negatively forecast the future.

If you're concerned about unemployment rates rising or COVID-19 for example, what would be the plan if you lose your job or if cases continue to rise, or there was another lockdown? Those won't be problems you necessarily face the moment the election is called. But, it can be helpful to consider whether you have a "plan b", maybe a "plan c" for the scenarios you're concerned about, but stop there. Don't go all the way to z. Because anxiety can make you worry about every possible scenario.

2. Find ways to reduce your adrenaline levels
If you can move your body physically you are burning off the adrenaline and reducing cortisol levels. Cortisol is the hormone released as a stress response when we are in "fight or flight" mode. It sends messages to the rest of the body to take action. Adrenaline is a hormone released under extreme emotions and causes the person to have energy—to literally fight or take flight. If you're sitting in front of the TV that adrenaline has got nowhere to go. If you're busy or with family, something I suggest to my clients is to do 10 star jumps or 10 squats, to play with your kids or run up and down the stairs. The easiest thing you can do is go for a walk for fifteen minutes without your phone. There is a saying: "If your environment is clear, your mind is clear." So, if there has been a cupboard that you need to clear out, do it today.

3. Avoid obsessing over the news and getting into opinionated conversations
Stay informed, but try to limit your news intake, including social media. Don't let yourself get obsessed with the election and remember to take time away from your phone. Watch enough to stay informed but don't keep the news on TV all day in the background. I also suggest avoiding conversation around the election, especially with overly opinionated people. Communicate with people, but try to talk about other things.

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4. Remember it's OK to disagree with one another
Depending on your background, upbringing or beliefs you will have an opinion on whether you support Trump or Biden. And that may not be the same as some of your family, friends or colleagues. What I always advise my clients who are in conflict with someone is that you can't control other people, but you can control your reaction to them. If someone has an opinion that you don't like, I suggest you try to communicate your opinion clearly and calmly, as this can bring the stress levels down in the other person as well. But remember that the only person you can control is yourself, and it is OK to agree to disagree.

5. Practice gratitude and remember to breathe
One of the tools I use in sessions with clients is to make sure my first question is always asking what has been good about the previous week. What I'm doing is forcing people to practice gratitude and understanding that they can do that, even when anxious.

Anxiety has a physical effect on your body, so another thing I tell clients to do is send a message from your body to your mind. So I talk about breathing. The easiest technique you can try is four/seven breathing. You breathe in for a count of four and breathe out for a count of seven. This slower breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which puts your body into a "rest and digest" state, which is the opposite of the "fight or flight" response. When you're anxious, your breaths are likely short and sharp. What you're doing is consciously using your breath to send a message through the Vagus nerve to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

6. Try to practice acceptance
The biggest form of anxiety is about not being able to accept something you can't control, so you've got to accept that this is a very close call and we still have to wait for the result. It needs to be declared.

Although 2020 has been really hard for many people, and continues to be, a lot of my clients are coping really well. And it's fascinating for me to look at what those people have "got". In any stressful situation, why do some people cope and some others do not? I believe it is not the event necessarily, but our thought processes around them. The clients I see that are doing really well have acceptance and gratitude for what they have—whether that's a roof over their head or family around them. They are eating well, sleeping well and exercising well. They are trying to keep some sort of routine and adapting that routine depending on the circumstances, which I suggest people try to do, whether those circumstances are the weather, COVID-19 or for Americans, the U.S. Presidential election.

Gurjinder "Gin" Lalli BSc HPD DSFH is a psychotherapist and clinical hypnotherapist who specializes in stress and anxiety treatment and is based in Edinburgh. For more information, visit ginlalli.com.

All views expressed in this piece are the writer's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.