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How to Deal with Election Anxiety—Without Freaking Out

Note: At the end of the blog article, “Worried About the Election? You’re Not Alone,”—posted on October 5, 2020—I mentioned that I would provide tips on how to manage election anxiety. I offer these tips to you now in “How to Deal with Election Anxiety.”

Michael Angelo, LCPC

When it comes to worries about the upcoming presidential election, it’s possible to stay informed without being obsessively vigilant. Right?

Yes, if you’re willing to address the source of the anxiety, implementing practical suggestions that might at first seem to be counterproductive. This means, for example, avoiding “reassurance seeking,” as in asking others if things are going to work out all right.

“In living with anxious anticipation, more often than not there aren’t many practical, implementable ways to address the source of the anxiety—and the strategies that seem logical may prove to be counterproductive.”

It won’t be easy to NOT seek reassurance because when we’re anxious about something, it’s natural to look for answers—ideally, searching for conclusive evidence that the situation is under control, and that we don’t need to worry, said Fletcher Wortmann, author of Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. “Unfortunately,” he said, “the information obtained through reassurance-seeking is rarely satisfying in the long run, and looking for more data only feeds into the cycle of anxiety.”

Dealing with constant anxiety about an uncertain event, helpless to hasten it, and unable to control the outcome sends most people almost IMMEDIATELY into a panic—and the FIRST thing they do is find someone to reassure them that their worst fears will NOT come true. Situations like these are tremendous stressors that eat away at our psychological resources over time, affecting many people, and especially those suffering from an anxiety disorder like OCD, said Wortmann.

“In living with anxious anticipation, more often than not there aren’t many practical, implementable ways to address the source of the anxiety—and the strategies that seem logical may prove to be counterproductive,” he said.

If you’re looking for helps with anxiety, sometimes you may need to bounce ideas off of a professional counselor.

Any Yet, There’s Nothing Like Confession for Addiction

Michael Walters, therapist at Encompass Counseling Center, isn’t opposed to meditation and mindfulness to calm the mind—alleviating obsessive, addictive type thinking. But he said there’s nothing like confession to kill the urge to relapse. He cites numerous studies to support his claim, including one from Timmons (2012) in which the author assessed the role of Christian religious engagement in recovery.

A professor of nursing, in the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences, at Clemson University, Sarah Timmons is an outspoken advocate of Christian faith as the means of avoiding relapse. Her books on the topic include A Christian Faith-Based Recovery Theory: Understanding God as Sponsor as well as A Redemption Story: A Case Study of a Faith-Based Addiction Recovery Process.

According to Timmons, higher rates of success were found when addicted persons would admit to their problem and communicate with God regarding their recovery. The author identified confession as significant component to the recovery process. Supporting her position, Timmons identifies James 5:16 “therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” as representative a Christian application of STEP 5 of the 12-STEP process.

Multiple other studies such as Newberg, et al. (2000), Vasiliauskas and McMinn (2012), and Walker, et al. (2011) have consistently shown that forgiveness is a vital component of the recovery process. “This is true for both the offended and the offender,” Walters said. “Confession is a common antecedent to forgiveness, both in others and in self. It naturally follows that confession would be a necessary component to any recovery process.”

“When people are worrying, they are uncertain about their ability to control important outcomes, but they have some belief that they could control those outcomes if they just try (or worry) hard enough.”

For OCD suffers, stressful situations are particularly problematic, and reassurance-seeking easily can become a compulsive ritual behavior. In Freedom from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Jonathan Grayson categorizes such symptoms as a form of checking: Rituals that are direct attempts to affect the environment or to perceive the environment correctly define the obsessive behavior.

For example, if you’re obsessed with the possibility that a distant family member is in danger, you might start calling them a few times a week, then once a day, and then every few hours. In addition, excessive worry is an instinctive response to danger, especially when threats are distant or abstract.

“Both worry and rumination are associated with concerns about control and uncertainty,” said Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a professor of psychology at Yale University. “We suggest that when people are worrying, they are uncertain about their ability to control important outcomes, but they have some belief that they could control those outcomes if they just try (or worry) hard enough.”

Good luck with that. You can’t worry enough to stop any event from happening, though you can’t convince worriers of this.

“There’s nothing to stop you from browsing a polling website for hours, hitting refresh repeatedly to see the latest numbers. If you desperately need someone to reassure you that the forecast is favorable, you have instant access to your favored news outlet, to partisan commentators, and to the social media echo chamber.”

Ordinarily, the go-to treatment for OCD is Exposure-Response Prevention therapy (ERP). With ERP, the OCD sufferer directly confronts the cause of their symptoms without falling back on pathological rituals—such as reassurance-seeking—to gradually reduce their anxiety and escape the obsessive cycle. To return to the previous example, if you’re obsessed with a threat to your family, your ERP might require you to go longer and longer periods without contacting them, or even to actively imagine them being hurt or killed.

“But once again,” Wortmann said, “our attempts to control anxiety related to a high-stakes event is complicated by mass media.”

Grayson agreed: “If the core of your anxiety is that ‘I’m worried the election will play out unfavorably,’ the obvious ERP treatment should be to confront your worst-case scenario directly, looking for scary or depressing news without seeking positive evidence to reassure yourself. But the internet makes the kind of cautious, deliberate information-exposure necessary for ERP much trickier.” 

“The matter is further complicated by issues of civic responsibility and involvement. For many, it’s natural to care about politics, and shutting off the news may feel like abdicating your responsibility to remain an informed citizen. This is an admirable goal, but it determines some scrutiny.”

In 10 minutes online, you’ll encounter countless sources of both positive and negative information. Sorting these out for an ERP exercise can spiral out of control back into that same type of obsessive, anxiety-driven information-seeking, said Grayson. “One of the reasons for this,” he said, “is that you feel as though your feared consequence has come to pass; that is, you fear the thoughts will never leave and as a result your life will be ruined, and, indeed, your life is misery whenever the thoughts are present.”

Nolen-Hoeksema added that the matter is further complicated by issues of civic responsibility and involvement. For many, it’s natural to care about politics, he said, and shutting off the news may feel like abdicating your responsibility to remain an informed citizen. 

“This is an admirable goal,” she said, “but it determines some scrutiny: who actually benefits if you stay up into two in the morning watching cable news? How does this benefit your candidate, or improve the health of our democracy? That goes double for the hours spent conversing on social media, whether arguing against the opposition or patting yourself and like-minded friends on the back.”

“One of the most obvious strategy is to change or reduce your media consumption . . . if you think carefully you can probably identify a few specific websites, TV shows or channels, or social media platforms that you check compulsively.”

If you’re undergoing treatment for anxiety or OCD, the first step should be to discuss these anxieties with your therapist, said Wortmann. But if you’re looking for some guidance, or are just wrestling with general election anxiety and news addiction, there are a few actions to consider:

One of the most obvious strategy is to change or reduce your media consumption. These days, a total media blackout isn’t really possible, but if you think carefully you can probably identify a few specific websites, TV shows or channels, or social media platforms that you check compulsively while looking for positive news. “Identifying these places, and limiting your access, is probably a good place to start,” Wortmann said.

“If you can identify and reduce these stressful, unproductive activities, you’ll have more time and energy for genuinely productive activities: donating to a cause, making phone calls for a campaign, or contacting friends and loved ones with support and encouragement.”

“In these complicated times,” he said, “I think it’s helpful to examine any potential political activity along two axes. Before you turn on the TV or submit that comment on Facebook, there are two questions to ask. Politically, am I actually accomplishing something meaningful that will promote my cause—are my actions productive or unproductive? And what is the personal cost of this activity? Is it healthy or stressful?”

Viewed through this lens, Wortmann and others suspect that much of our political engagement in the weeks leading up to the election maybe revealed as both stressful and unproductive—arguing in person or with strangers online, or fixating on the news for hours when nothing of consequence has happened. 

“If you can identify and reduce these stressful, unproductive activities,” Nolen-Hoeksema said, “you’ll have more time and energy for genuinely productive activities: donating to a cause, making phone calls for a campaign, or contacting friends and loved ones with support and encouragement. Even unproductive activities are still preferable as long they’re healthy; since it won’t change the outcome of the election either way, getting a good night’s sleep is obviously a better choice than staying up late with eyes glued to the television.” 

 

Stay informed, but not obsessively vigilant; engage with causes you care about and people you love, but avoid pointless arguments with anonymous strangers.

2020 is proving to be uniquely, unprecedentedly stressful; we simply cannot afford to waste our precious mental resources on activities that make us miserable without generating any personal or common good. Stay informed, but not obsessively vigilant; engage with causes you care about and people you love, but avoid pointless arguments with anonymous strangers. 

“Emotional investment in current events ultimately comes from concern for the welfare of yourself and others,” Wortmann said. “This is admirable; but please, remain mindful of your own health as well.”

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If you’re looking for help with anxiety  sometimes you may need to bounce ideas off of a professional counselor.

References

Jonathan Grayson, Freedom from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (Updated Edition). Penguin Random House New York, NY 2014. Pg. 169, 263.

Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Blair E. Wisco, and Sonja Lyubomirsky. “Rethinking Rumination” Perspectives on Psychological Science.  Vol 3, Issue 5, Pg. 400-424.

Fletcher Wortmann. “Suffering from Election Anxiety: Wrestling with anxiety as we count

down to the election.” Sept. 4, 2020. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/triggered/202009/suffering-election-anxiety

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