How to cope with Election Day stress
Election-related stress levels are rising across the U.S., according to a recent poll by the American Psychological Association. The good news for about 50% of the country is that this will all be over soon, the bad news for the other half is … this will all be over soon.
Either way, it’s time to develop some coping mechanisms, fast.
Bloomberg spoke to health professionals about ways in which average, harried, news-obsessed readers can stay sane on and after Nov. 3., with wellness tips to handle whatever comes next.
You’re not building in a time to worry
“Sleep is a very primitive phenomenon, and it’s something that can be overridden by stressors, light, and noise,” says Dr. Ana Krieger, chief of the Sleep Neurology Division in the Department of Neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine, as well as medical director of its Center for Sleep Medicine.
People can prepare themselves for a good night’s sleep by relaxing ahead of time — and that’s usually impossible, she continues, if they begin to worry the minute their heads hit the pillow.
Krieger recommends putting a piece of paper next to the bed and creating a list of stress-related bullet points. (Yes, some might need more than one sheet of paper.). “Often, we push through our days without addressing our stressors and concerns,” Krieger explains. “And when you try to fall asleep, even if they’re minor, they [begin to feel] much bigger.”
“The next day, after lunch, is a good time to go through the list and elaborate on them and manage your worries,” she says, “so the next night, when you go to sleep, the pressure of the worries that weren’t attended to isn’t as big.”
You're watching the news before bed
“If you have to be up by 7 a.m., and you’re more or less a seven-hour sleeper, you should be in bed by 11:30 p.m.,” says Krieger. And you should begin to “wind down” even earlier, about an hour before, — without TV, late-night exercise, eating, or alcohol. Yes, even on election night.
“If you’re doing anything that is worrisome or concerning or super interesting [right before bed], that can also keep sleep from taking place, because you’re doing something that’s hierarchically more important, and your brain is engaged,” Krieger says.
You're not turning worry into action
“One of the most useful things people can do in the face of anxiety is to take action,” says Matt Lundquist, the founder of New York’s TriBeCa Therapy. “Through most of the millennia of human history, when you were anxious about food storage, you could hunt; when you were anxious about the roof of a cave collapsing, you could find another cave. Anxiety existed to focus attention and produce action.”
Voting, Lundquist says about election stress specifically, “is relatively passive.” So while people should vote, they should also work at a phone bank, canvass, and do whatever they can for their candidate of choice.
“That’s a clinical intervention I recommend,” he says. “It will make people less anxious if they engage in those activities.”
You're not taking five minutes to just breathe
“Much of the time, we’re lost in the past or the future,” says Diana Winston, the director of mindfulness education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. “When our minds go there, that’s where the anxiety kicks in: the grief, worry, all the negative moments people are dealing with. And especially with the election, it’s all the worry about what-if, and it creates more anxiety and fear and confusion.”
Winston says people can counteract stress by devoting a few minutes to low-key meditation, regardless of their skill level.
“It doesn’t have to be any kind of big deal,” she says. “I start people with just five minutes, where they sit down somewhere and learn the tool of paying attention to the present moment and paying attention to breathing.”
Your attention will wander, Winston says, and then you can bring it back. “This practice, over time, reduces stress, reduces inflammation, and boosts the immune system.”
You're eating while watching the news
Stress triggers fight-or-flight hormones in your body, explains Coral Dabarera Edelson, a Los Angeles-based dietician nutritionist. Unsurprisingly, those are not the same hormones your body uses to digest food properly. “Stress really messes with your digestion,” she says. Plus: “If you’re listening to the news and not chewing your food, you [also] won’t digest it well.” Which doesn’t help you feel better.
The good news is it’s simple to reduce stress before eating: Stop reading or watching stressful things (such as the news!) and take “deep belly breaths, which stimulate your vagus nerve, which turns off that fight-or-flight response,” she says.
You're not taking the day after off
“I speak to people who are really nervous, and they’re all saying they want to take Tuesday off,” Lundquist says.
That, he advises, might be the wrong approach.
People need to understand that watching poll results for seven hours is exhausting. “This isn’t just staying up to watch the NBA finals on the West Coast,” he says. “This is something that people have a much bigger investment in, and it’s liable to be somewhat more fatiguing.”
By taking Wednesday off in advance, Lundquist continues, people can eliminate the pressure of going to bed anxious, knowing they have to wake up and function at jobs just a few hours later. “If you’re someone who thinks [that combination] is going to mess you up, you need to make room for it.”