After the election of 2016 my therapy practice became almost exclusively about politics. Client after client wanted to talk about the election. They wanted help and tools for how to deal with the stress and anxiety they felt, in response to the results. They needed grounding tools and a neutral person to talk to. In fact, in 2016 it wasn’t just my clients experiencing this. Election related anxiety was so high that the term “Election Stress Disorder” became a thing (though not an official diagnosis). As we approach the election of 2020, ESD is starting to rear it’s ugly head again, but don’t fret, there’s something you can do about it.
The latest American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey of June 2020 found that 8 in 10 Americans surveyed reported experiencing significant stress over the “future of our nation.” This is an increase of roughly 10% compared to 2018 surveys. Of course the stress many of us feel related to the election is most likely connected to or increased by the many other stressful events of 2020.
So what does a stress disorder look like? According to the DSM 5, you might notice some of the following symptoms: poor concentration, difficulty sleeping, hypervigilance, negative mood, difficulty feeling positive, and intrusive thoughts (see more). While not everyone will experience all of these symptoms, it’s not uncommon to feel some of them during a stress response. Mitigating your stress response can help you feel more relaxed and in control. The process of decreasing your stress response, is as simple as a few steps, but does require a some practice!
Build Self Awareness
When it comes to our stress response, many of us allow our emotional responses to hijack our brains before we recognize what’s happening. When our body is responding to a stressor our muscles tense up, heart rate increases and the sympathetic nervous system is engaged. Being able to recognize the early signs of this stress response can be helpful in learning to reduce it. With my clients I begin by giving them a feelings wheel to help identify and name their emotions. After that they work on reflection sheets like the the Unpleasant/Pleasant Events Logs to help identify how they felt in previous situations and begin building awareness in the moment.
Develop Relaxation Tools
Once some self awareness has been developed, you can begin to implement relaxation tools to help decrease your sympathetic nervous system response and relax your body. When your body is in a state of heightened arousal it signals to your brain that something is wrong and this can make it difficult to self regulate or think clearly (like when you’re so angry you can’t think straight!). Relaxation can be key to helping you self regulate. When you’re responding to a stressor you might notice racing or ruminating thoughts, feeling stuck or limited in your options and general difficulty thinking clearly. These are common responses when we’re in reactive states. Learning to relax your body has been proven to decrease reactivity, lower heart rate, decrease muscle tension and improve self regulation.
Learning to relax is often easier said than done, however. Here are a few rules of thumb for developing this tool:
- Practice relaxation when you’re already relatively relaxed. It’s always harder to learn how to do something when you’re in a state of stress.
- Start by simply noticing and following your breath. This is one of the easiest relaxation techniques available. Simply close your eyes and take a slow, deep breath. Try to bring your attention to the process of breathing.
- Practice multiple times daily. Don’t reserve relaxation for the weekends, practice it every day. You could set a timer to take 3 slow, deep breaths every hour, or try another exercise throughout the day.
- If at first you don’t succeed, don’t worry about it! Everything takes time, but if you stick with it, you’ll get it eventually. It might take some tweaking or finding the tools that work best for you, but trust me, you can do this.
Here are some of the relaxation exercises I often recommend to clients:
Make Better Choices/Self Regulate
You’ll most likely notice that once you’ve developed awareness of your feelings, and starting implementing relaxation, you’ll start to feel a little better in these stressful times. However, these tools alone won’t solve your problems. Self regulation is the third step of this process and an important step to breaking your stress cycle. This is the “make good choices” step. In this step it’s now up to you to decide, from a non-reactive place, what to do next both long and short term.
This is where you decide to do the thing that’s best for you, which may be hard, or something else. For example, if you grab your phone and hop on social media every time you’re bored, but social media is a source of stress, you might 1. Notice you’re bored and about to grab your phone. 2. Take a slow deep breath and calm yourself down, decreasing the impulse and 3. Then make the decision to put your phone away and take a walk instead.
Overtime choosing the better choice for yourself will become habit and change the way you feel overall. If you need help deciding what the best choices are, you might want to start by reflecting on what your values are. What things are important to you in life? How do you want to spend your time? Etc.
Practice Self Care
Self care is supplemental, but crucial to this process and if you’re like many of my clients, you’re not even sure you know what “self care” means. Think of it this way, self care is the process of caring for all of you, and while it can be a hot bath, it’s also so much more. When you consider self care look at how you care for yourself body, mind and soul. Starting with your body, look at nutrition and fitness. How are you doing in these categories? What about sleep? Learning to eat healthier, get some exercise (even just a short walk) and sleeping the recommended 7–8hrs a night has been shown to impact mental health significantly. Next consider your mind, improvements to your nutrition and sleep can certainly help with anxiety or depressive symptoms, but they may not stop negative thoughts or low self esteem. Self care for your mind can include building self compassion, keeping a journal or practicing a hobby that you find entertaining and stimulating. Finally feed your soul with things that make you feel whole and good. Self care for the soul include self compassion, setting healthy boundaries, meditating, and praying.
Connect with Others
It’s important that you don’t do all this work and forget to process! That’s the beauty of having friends, family, therapists, and other support in your life. Taking time to not only connect with others in fun and engaging ways, but also to process more difficult emotions with people has been proven effective in relieving stress and anxiety.
When it comes to connecting with others as a processing tool, it’s important to let them know what you’re wanting from the situation. You may try by using “I feel…,” “I want….,” and “I need…” statements to help guide the conversation. For example: I have been feeling so stressed out by this upcoming election! I really want to stop worrying. I need to just talk about it with someone who can listen. Can you help me with this?
Choose people you can trust and know you’ll be able to talk to without feeling judged. If you don’t feel like you have someone in your life like that, you can always seek out therapy or a support group or start by journaling.
Need help with your election stress? Let us know! Therapy is actually a great place to process with someone who is neutral. We can help you talk about how the election is actually making you feel, without going down the spiral with you. It’s also a great place to hone these tools and make them work for you!
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