Election Day stressing you out? A therapist shares tips for protecting your mental health

Erin Donnelly
·7 min read

You can pore over polls, or just throw on your favorite campaign T-shirt and hope for the best, but there’s just no predicting how Election Day will play out in a year that’s thrown the rule book out the window. With tension and uncertainty mounting, and Americans already experiencing what’s been dubbed “election stress disorder,” Nov. 3 — and, potentially, the days following it — stands to be a fraught day regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum. But it doesn’t have to be, says Kati Morton, a licensed family and marriage therapist known for her YouTube channel tackling mental health topics.

The author of Are u ok?: A Guide to Caring for Your Mental Health tells Yahoo Life that wall-to-wall Election Day coverage, and more importantly, the consequences of what the ultimate result will mean, can be overwhelming to deal with. But by establishing some boundaries and following some mindful practices, it’s possible to protect our mental health during this tumultuous time. Read on for her pointers.

Set up a calming environment

Given the pandemic, chances are you’re watching the results come in from home and not say, campaign headquarters or a packed local bar. That’s all the more reason to create an environment that will help you relax and take the pressure down a notch.

According to Morton, that could mean changing into your favorite sweats, or cooking your go-to comfort food dishes — or, better yet, treating yourself to a takeout meal to stave off any late-night “hanger.” Good company is also important; if you can’t spend the evening with friends outside your bubble, consider setting up your laptop for a group Zoom. Bottom line: Calm, and comfortable is the vibe you want.

“We want to make sure that we’re feeling our best,” Morton says, and making sure these “basic needs” are met is a great start.

Avoid heated debates

So, what if your quarantine bubble includes friends, family members or roommates whose political views are the polar opposite of yours? A high-pressure scenario like this could of course spark any number of heated political debates and tense confrontations, which are bound to crank up angry, anxious feelings. If you’d rather keep the peace, Morton says it’s helpful to distinguish the “wise mind” from the “emotion mind,” and act (or react) accordingly.

“In therapy, we call it the wise mind versus emotion mind,” she explains. “On Election Day, we’re in emotion mind — we could fly off the handle. We can be really irritable. We can be short-tempered. It's not a good time to have difficult conversations.

“We have to wait [until] we’re in wise mind, when we feel good. So now's not the time to finally have that conversation with that aunt or family member about the issue that they disagree with you on. Now is the time instead to come together, to try to focus on the things that we do agree on. And it's also fine to just talk about something that has nothing to do with the election.”

Take a break

It can be tempting to “doomscroll” while channel-flipping to see what cable news pundits are predicting every single second. But Morton says that this compulsion to stay on top of both the breaking news and the social media reactions to it “can cause us to feel really overwhelmed and stressed out.” Her advice: Don’t engage so much.

“I know it can feel like we’re just ignoring what’s happening and we want to be informed, but there’s only so much information we can take in in one time,” she says, “and watching the news constantly or getting on social media and seeing the feedback 24/7 is going to overwhelm our system and make us feel worse.”

Morton suggests setting time limits so you can check in on the latest results and dip back out without getting completely sucked into the drama.

“We all know how the news likes to just cycle through the same things in a different way,” she notes. “We don't need to be there for that. So watching it for 30 minutes, then taking maybe an hour, two hours off, I think is really key.”

Election Day is here — but being glued to the exhaustive coverage may take a toll on your stress levels. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)
Election Day is here — but being glued to the exhaustive coverage may take a toll on your stress levels. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)

Focus on what you can control

Campaign volunteers are working round-the-clock to reach every last registered voter. But once the polls close, it’s out of the public’s hands, and the wait to see how it all shakes out can be excruciating.

“Voting can be a powerful thing; we’ve cast our vote or our voice has been heard, but then we have to kind of sit back and wait to hear what the other voices were, and that can leave us feeling a little bit helpless, hopeless and sometimes powerless,” Morton notes.

Rather than spend the night agonizing over whether you did enough to help your candidate, she recommends you “take back control where you can” by finding pleasant diversions that’ll lift your spirits, or at least distract you from the political action.

“Maybe go for a quick little walk,” she suggests. “Maybe we want to make something delicious to eat for dinner in the kitchen. Maybe we have our favorite Christmas music we have that we put on for [commercial breaks]. Hop in the shower, put on comfy clothes. Stand up and shake it out.”

Redirect your thoughts to a positive place

Maybe a state you thought was a shoo-in went the other way. Maybe a local candidate or proposition you backed lost. Maybe the online vitriol and political backbiting has you in a dark mood.

Morton says these thoughts “can stop us in our tracks” and ramp up anxiety. Again, she emphasizes the importance of taking breaks from the election coverage and using that time to steer our thinking in a “more positive direction.”

Start by avoiding making assumptions and bleak, blanket predictions about the future, she says, which can be overwhelming and unproductive. Rather than reacting to disappointing news with “it’s all over,” consider telling yourself, “I’m open to the possibility that things could be OK.”

“Play it out” and plan ahead

But leaning on the power of positivity doesn’t mean you can’t confront the possibility of a worst-case scenario unfolding. In fact, Morton says it’s useful to work out what that might look like to you beforehand, in hopes of helping you process and prepare for a negative outcome.

“There’s a cognitive-behavioral tool that's called ‘play it out,’” she explains. “I want you to play out in your brain: What’s the worst-case scenario, what could possibly happen? How would you feel, what will be taking place? What do you have control over?

“Then I want you to take a minute and I want you to play out the best-case scenario. What's the best thing that you think could happen in this election? What are all the things that you could see taking place that would just make your life that much easier and make you feel that much better?

“And then, and this is going to be the most difficult, but the most important is, what's the most likely [outcome]?” she says. “I know we want to see it in black and white, but that's not really what it is. There is somewhere in the middle where something is most likely to take place.”

Envisioning these possible scenarios — and the coping strategies we might rely on to handle them — “takes away the fear” of things not going our way, she says. And if that is what ends up happening, we may feel less shock, and be better able to shift into survival mode.

“Planning ahead for that will make us feel a little bit more in control, and help us feel not as helpless — and hopefully help us survive this Election Day,” she says.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Video produced by Jenny Miller.

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