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Struggling With Election Anxiety? Read This.

Some psychologists offer helpful advice for Nov. 3 and beyond.

Posted on November 3, 2020, at 2:40 p.m. ET

Bens K / BuzzFeed News; Getty Images

At long last, Election Day is finally upon us.

For months, there’s been a deluge of inescapable news and headlines about the impending showdown between President Donald Trump and his challenger, former vice president Joe Biden — along with a drumbeat reminding voters that the stakes for the 2020 election are spectacularly high.

For some, it feels like democracy itself is on the line.

The president, for his part, certainly hasn’t made the lead-up to Election Day any easier. Trump has tried to undermine the public’s faith in the voting process, especially when it comes to mail-in ballots. He has called on his supporters to watch the polls, which could be seen as an invitation to intimidate people trying to cast their votes — though there are things to do if you see voter intimidation. And he’s said he might prematurely claim victory if it seems like he’s ahead. There’s also concern about how long it’ll take to declare the winner. Just keep in mind that it’s unlikely that we’ll have the final results on Nov. 3. (Remember the 2000 election? Gore didn’t concede until December!) But let’s just hope we don’t have to endure any nightmare scenarios before there’s a verdict this time around.

Naturally, with so much up in the air, you might be feeling a little overwhelmed and anxious, especially given what has already transpired over the course of the last four years. I spoke to two psychologists — Thema Bryant-Davis, 46, a Pepperdine University professor whose expertise is in trauma and culture, and Pierre (he declined to give his last name for privacy reasons), 31, a family therapist based in the Bronx, New York — about how to cope during this time, and some advice you can implement on Election Day and beyond.

The best thing to do is to have compassion for yourself, “because the things people are anxious about are not beyond the realm of possibility.”

The anxieties people are grappling with are varied and pressing, according to Bryant-Davis and Pierre. Some of their clients have expressed concern about Trump’s remarks implying he might fire Dr. Anthony Fauci after the election, especially since Black and Latinx people, who have been disproportionately affected by the ongoing pandemic, and many of Bryant-Davis’s patients are in that demographic. Pierre said some clients have been unnerved by the Biden campaign bus being “ambushed” by a horde of Trump supporters in Texas. And both psychologists said their patients have talked about fears of being physically harmed or put in danger, referencing incidents of voter intimidation and moments from earlier in the pandemic, when anti-mask rallies began to crop up.

With fears like these, Bryant-Davis said, the best thing to do is to have compassion for yourself, “because the things people are anxious about are not beyond the realm of possibility.” It’s important to acknowledge that your stressors are valid and based on things that are happening in the news and could — potentially — personally affect you. Oftentimes, Bryant-Davis said, when trying to combat anxiety, some people may condemn themselves, which only exacerbates the problem. Instead, she said, you should aim for “radical acceptance” of what you are feeling, adding, “I can feel my feelings, and I have a right to feel what I feel instead of being embarrassed about it or mad at myself for it.” Similarly, Pierre suggested “listening to yourself,” regulating your sleep as much as possible, and making your bed a designated area specifically for non-stressful things, like sleep, sex, or reading.

Coping with — and quelling — anxiety, according to Bryant-Davis, isn’t just about figuring out how to make yourself feel better but also equipping yourself with an activating mindset, like asking yourself, “How can I try to make things better?” So volunteering, taking up activism and advocacy, and getting involved with community organizing are some examples of actionable things. “Those are good for our mental health,” she said. “We don't have to just feel powerless or helpless.” This advice hits on a sentiment expressed by Pierre, who said that for him, the point of self-care isn’t necessarily to cope in the face of horrible things or to distract folks from reality, but to “strengthen people” and “help people heal themselves so that they can deal with what's happening.”

Volunteering, taking up activism and advocacy, and getting involved with community organizing are some examples of actionable things. 

We live in a world where there’s a constant barrage of news, and since final results from the election might not be in for a while, Bryant-Davis recommends cutting back the amount of information you’re consuming, as it could exacerbate your anxiety. You can stay informed, but you don’t have to “drown in it,” she said. She also said limiting your social media intake is a good idea, as well as setting boundaries for who you engage with.

“You know, there are a few people who like to debate for debate's sake and that's fun for them. If that's your thing, have fun, but for a lot of people, those conversations are draining and can feel toxic and unhealthy and leave you feeling worse.” The key here, Bryant-Davis said, is being intentional about managing stress. “The powers that be want us to be subjugated and want us to fail, want us to be burnt out. They want us to be tired,” Pierre said, speaking on the same subject. “Because having good self-care, having good mental wellness, good physical health isn’t what’s wanted for is, so it’s something you have to take. That’s what makes self-care a radical move.”

Pierre’s approach to self-care is very much rooted in a communal ideology. “If you're concerned and stressed about what the next week or so is going to look like for you, imagine all the vulnerable people in your life and in your community who are also scared and who were also kind of dealing with the same anxieties,” he said. “A way to kind of regulate yourself and make yourself feel strong is also [by] helping other people.” Pierre suggested checking in on children, older adults, and people with disabilities in your family, and making sure they have groceries, medicine, and other important items, as well as donating to people’s individual Cash App accounts and the like.

“There are people online now who can't pay rent, or they need health insurance assistance, or they can't pay a bill and they're asking for help, and the political campaigns, they don't need anything else, but these people do,” Pierre said. “And being able to do some makes you feel like you're doing something, and that's helping.” Likewise, Bryant-Davis said it’s a good idea to check with shelters to see what’s on their wish lists, which are typically posted on their websites. She added that there’s also a need for help at rape crisis centers and domestic violence agencies, as “a lot of nonprofits are really struggling.” But material services aren’t the only thing you can give — if you have a specific skill set, like a background in finance or law, and are able to donate some of your time, it “can really make a difference and remind you of your agency and your power.”

It’s important to note, per Bryant-Davis, that we can “hold stress in the body,” which can present in some people as migraines, nausea, and backaches. She suggested embodied healing as a way of taking care of yourself in order to release the tension within your body. “Feeling better is not just about shifting my mind, but it's also physical,” she said, and offered examples of exercise. If you’re into yoga, there’s a specific type called trauma-informed yoga that can help you feel more connected to your mind and body. If you’re someone who has restricted movement, there are low-impact activities you can do, like chair stretching. It’s equally important to make sure you’re nourishing yourself properly, drinking water, and eating foods that have nutrients, because “when we are stressed, we are more likely to go for the sweets and carbs.”

Ultimately, you don’t want to be so entrenched in the idea that everything — your hopes and values — rely on a single individual, like the president.

With the arrival of Election Day, many worry about what will happen when a winner is declared — and how the losing party can handle the ensuing disappointment. “I would say regardless of who wins, get active, because a lot of the systemic problems that we are to be dealing with are going to still be occurring regardless,” Pierre said. “There's going to be issues with food, the pandemic is still going to be around, and a lot of the decisions that have already been made, we haven't felt the effects of it fully quite yet — and that's scary to think about.” Bryant-Davis echoed this, saying, if you’re angry or upset, you want to make sure it’s “constructive anger,” which happens when you allow your disappointment to motivate you to get involved in the changes you want to see, as opposed to “destructive anger,” which rises when you want to hurt others or yourself. She also suggested not putting all your eggs “in one presidential basket” so you should check the names of the other folks you voted for on your ballot and see what the outcomes are. Ultimately, you don’t want to be so entrenched in the idea that everything — your hopes and values — rely on a single individual, like the president.

Even if it may feel like there’s little hope for the future, Bryant-Davis said it’s important to cultivate joy whenever possible because “time is sacred and time is not promised,” and you don’t want to feel as if you can’t be happy for the next four years because your candidate didn't win. “What are ways that I can bring joy into my life? What are the things that helped me to come alive?” she offered, as questions you can ask yourself when feeling bogged down. Listen to music, dance, Zoom with friends, go for a walk. And with the “heaviness of what we are facing with the election, I encourage people to choose comedy,” she said, adding that it’s important to strive for balance, and humor can act as an antidote to the onslaught of dread. Pierre also suggested reflecting on the things that bring you comfort and holding on to that.

“The work for fairness, for equity, for a good, healthy democracy — that's a lifelong commitment,” Bryant-Davis said. “It's not a sprint, so it does not end [on Election Day]. So in order for me to sustain myself, I can't wait until everything is perfect before I can have joy.” ●

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