Navigating Post-Election Stress in Massively Uncertain Times

By Leah Harris

It has been said so often that we live in “unprecedented times,” with a highly contentious election taking place during a global pandemic, on top of ongoing civil unrest and racialized violence, as well as major wildfire outbreaks. The New York Times recently reported that 68% of Americans cited the 2020 election as a “significant source of stress in their lives,” according to a Harris Poll conducted for the American Psychological Association (APA). And not all groups are experiencing this stress equally: for example, 71% of Black Americans reported the 2020 election as a source of stress, up from 46% in 2016. In 2020, 77% of Americans say the future of our nation is a significant source of stress, up from 66% in 2019. 

There is no question that the post-election environment will continue to be a highly stressful one, with some projecting days or weeks of uncertainty as the results are tabulated. Here are some tips for navigating the inevitable anxiety that is likely to ensue beyond Election Day.

Focus on what is within your immediate control. One of the things that makes this time so profoundly stressful is the sheer number of events and circumstances that are beyond our control. The APA suggests focusing on what you can control. For example, it is within your ability to control how much media you’re consuming on a daily basis. While access to information does give some people an increased sense of power, it can easily tip over into overwhelm. If this is a problem for you, consider limiting the time you spend on social media and other news. If it feels impossible to reduce your consumption, there are apps such as Freedom that you can set to block your access to social media or other websites at pre-determined times. Or you can partner up with someone who will go on a “social-media diet” with you for increased accountability. It goes without saying that whenever possible, try to limit political conversations with people in your life whose views cause you increased stress. 

Take care of your body and honor all your emotions. It also is within your control to practice self-care, which often goes out the window during the stressful times when it is needed most. Many experts recommend getting out of the house and moving, if you are able to do so safely and if it is within your ability. A change of scene can do wonders when four walls feel like they are closing in. If you are not able to leave the house, how can you change things up indoors? Can you put on some music that you can’t resist dancing and singing to? Put up some colorful lights that brighten your spirits? It can also be helpful to do a check on basic needs. Am I sleeping? Am I eating? Am I moving my body? When the world feels overwhelming and scary, focusing on making sure your basic needs are met is a way of honoring yourself. Again, if these things are a struggle, you can engage an accountability buddy and commit together to resting and nurturing daily. Most importantly, honoring how you feel is a vital part of caring for yourself. Release any pressure to “stay positive,” and focus on being honest with yourself, allowing all of your emotions, from fear, to anger, to numbness. 

Counter catastrophizing with perspective. While it is a natural human tendency to anticipate the worst, and one that probably kept our ancestors from being eaten by saber-toothed tigers, it is also important to maintain enough perspective so that you are not paralyzed and incapacitated by fear. Experts recommend the practice of intentionally reminding yourself that Americans have survived trying and terrible times throughout history, from slavery to the Civil War, to the Spanish Flu pandemic, to the aftermath of 9/11. 

Make a list of the things that bring you joy and do them as regularly as possible. While joy may feel indulgent and hard to access in scary times, it has been a vital part of survival and resistance throughout history. Check out the nonpartisan videos of voters dancing and singing at the polls as a reminder of the creativity that endures even in the most uncertain of times. 

Recall kindness. Another suggestion, inspired by Dr. Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing, is “recalling kindness.” In an article at Medium, writer and therapist Michele DeMarco suggests:

Wherever you are when you’re feeling overwhelmed or vulnerable, recall a time when someone was kind to you. Maybe that’s a family member or friend, a teacher or mentor, even a stranger. Remember everything you can about the experience — the words, gestures, touch, or actions the kind person used that soothed or helped you or made your life just a little bit better in the moment. As the memory becomes clear, notice any sensory aspects of it — what you see, hear, smell, or feel on your skin—as if you were back there now. Put a name to the emotion, both when you felt it back then and now as you recall the experience. If any negative feelings from the memory arise, imagine setting them in a bottle on a high shelf; then come back to the sensory aspects of the kind memory. Now, notice what sensations are coursing through your body and what your overall experience feels like.

As always, social support makes everything more tolerable and do-able. Consider setting up some ongoing post-election virtual or socially distanced in-person connections with supportive people in your life to process the uncertainty, engage in joyful or meaningful activities, and to stay as grounded and resourced as possible. 

While self-care is important, no matter what happens in the wake of the election, we will need more than ever to lean on each other and practice collective care, too.

Resources for further exploration: