Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Freaking Out? Here Are 5 Ways to Ward Off Election Anxiety

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Election Day is here, and if you’re like most Americans, you are probably anxious about it. As one California voter put it to The Times: “Everyone is starting to panic.”

The feeling is fairly bipartisan: According to a survey from the American Psychological Association, 76 percent of Democrats and 67 percent of Republicans say the presidential election is a significant source of stress in their lives. How can you control it? Should you even try to? Here’s what mental health professionals and journalists are saying.

Tune into a live broadcast of “The Daily” on Election Day: Dozens of Times reporters will break down what’s happening live at the polls, inside campaigns and in key battleground states. 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern.

Realize that we might not know the winner right away

Because of the surge of early voting and mail-in ballots this year, there is a significant chance the election will not be called tonight. In fact, only nine states expect to have at least 98 percent of unofficial results reported by noon on Nov. 4.

If you’re looking for bellwethers, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina will be the states to watch. As my colleague David Leonhardt explains, all three are likely to count votes quickly, and if Mr. Biden manages to win any of them, the presidency will probably be his.

But if Mr. Trump seems to be winning all of those states, the race could end up turning on Arizona and Pennsylvania, whose results could take several days to report. That’s not in itself cause for alarm, but it is a reason to lower your expectations for tonight.

Take a break from the news

If the results do end up delayed, checking their status every minute will not make them arrive any faster. Instead, the A.P.A. recommends, take breaks from the news to engage in activities that bring you a sense of calm or fulfillment.

“When I feel anxious, I often turn to this episode of ‘On Being’ with the poet Ross Gay on how he finds delight in everyday life, even as he struggles to process our overwhelming reality and push for social justice,” Jenna Wortham, a writer for The New York Times Magazine, told me. “Take frequent social media breaks! Dance to the new Busta Rhymes or Ariana Grande album in the kitchen with yourself, your partner or children.”

If you’re in the mood for classical music, Anthony Tommasini, The Times’s chief classical music critic, suggests taking 50 minutes to listen to a “mystical, ecstatic, contemplative and cosmic” work by Olivier Messiaen called “Quartet for the End of Time,” written for violin, cello, clarinet and piano.

“Messiaen, serving in the French Army during World War II, was a prisoner in a German stalag when he composed this piece and gave the first performance — at the camp with three other prisoners all playing decrepit instruments — in early 1941,” he told me. “It’s a miracle that such sublime, exciting and visionary music was born of such a circumstance. I recommend the landmark 1976 recording of the piece by the ensemble Tashi. Channeling the ‘end of time’ might help us all get through this fraught moment.”

And if a more prosaic escape is what you need, consider taking this “Election Distractor” from The Times’s Style section for a spin, perusing this list of mood-lifting diversions from The Times’s At Home team or watching “Dream Home Makeover” on Netflix, as Ronda Kaysen suggests. If you run out of episodes, there are 100 more TV and movie recommendations where those came from.

Keep your pessimism in check (or try to)

As my colleague Charlie Warzel writes, waiting on election returns is especially unpleasant because it combines two negative states: uncertainty and powerlessness. Uncertainty tends to inspire people to imagine worst-case scenarios, a cognitive pattern called defensive pessimism. It can be helpful in instances where you have agency to change the outcome, but when you don’t, it causes unnecessary stress.

“Defensive pessimism is creating a fictitious state,” Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, told Mr. Warzel. “You’re feeling pessimistic but you don’t really believe it. Deep down you think your candidate will win, but you’re telling yourself they won’t, so when the actual outcome happens it’ll hurt less. But that’s not how it works. So really you’ll be paying the price twice. Once for anticipatory period and again if the results don’t go how you want.”

Focus on what you can control

If thinking positively about this election doesn’t come naturally to you — just hypothetically — it might be best to direct your attention to something you have the capacity to change.

That could mean getting more involved in your community, as Katherine Cusumano writes in The Times. “You may feel especially powerless in the period between casting your vote and when the election is called or if your preferred candidate does not win,” she says, but “you can mitigate that feeling through other productive political actions,” like offering sources of reliable election information to your friends, attending a protest or asking your school district how you can help students in need.

If you’d rather start smaller, perhaps make plans for Thanksgiving, which Sam Sifton reminded readers this week is fast approaching. Virtual festivities might be strange, but perhaps all the more reason to focus on the food. If you’re making the meal for the first time this year, here’s The Times’s guide.

Stay active

Going for a walk or spending some time outside is rarely a bad idea. As Ms. Cusumano notes, studies have linked aerobic exercise to improved emotional regulation and the growth of new neurons. “Even moderate exercise like walking can yield benefits,” she says. But if the champions of exercise fail to convince you, perhaps its critics can: The English essayist Max Beerbohm famously hated walking because he felt “it stops the brain.”

Other analog activities, like writing your thoughts out by hand, can slow your thoughts too. Ms. Wortham recommends taking a bath, where your screens can’t follow. (Her current favorites are the Hinoki products from Ten Thousand Waves.) If you’re not much of a bath person, watch this video of capybaras taking a yuzu-scented one instead.

Stay socially connected

People who have friends or family members to turn to tend to deal with stressful situations better than people who don’t. Hugs can promote the release of oxytocin, a hormone that helps regulate anxiety, but virtual contact is better than nothing. Having someone to confide in — whether a friend, family member, therapist or cleric — can also help.

“Connections are important,” Steven Stosny, a therapist who coined the term “election stress disorder” during the 2016 election cycle, told The Lily. “Zoom with your friends. If you live with someone, hug that person six times a day. Hug more — that’s the biggest thing you can do.”

Accept your anxiety

As Terry Nguyen notes at Vox, mental health professionals say that most people won’t be able to avoid stress and anxiety entirely. There is, of course, good reason for that: Every U.S. election is an event of world-historical significance with life-or-death consequences, and this one — shaped as it’s been by a catastrophic pandemic, climate change, the apprehension of political violence and a president who has refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power — arguably has more than most.

Seen in that light, “election stress disorder” starts to seem more like the mark of a healthy body politic than its opposite. And depending on your disposition, thinking about that stress as something to meticulously manage, rather than a perfectly reasonable response to conditions largely beyond your control, can agitate more than it soothes.

“There’s no amount of self-care you can do that’s going to erase the stress that many of us are feeling,” said Melanie Dyer, a therapist in Austin, Texas, on the podcast “But, Have You Considered Therapy?” “It’s going to be stressful and you’re going to feel stressed.”

So if it helps, burn some incense, make a “worry appointment” and stream the five-and-a-half-hour BBC adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice.” But if it doesn’t, perhaps just remember what Kate Sweeny, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, told Mr. Warzel: “If you’re feeling like crap, you’re not alone.”

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.


“Voters Dread Election: ‘It’s Going to Be Hell No Matter What’” [The New York Times]

“De-stress With an Election-Anxiety Playlist” [The Atlantic]

“Peak Anxiety? Here Are 10 Ways to Calm Down” [The New York Times]


Here’s what readers had to say about the last debate: The voting suppression tipping point.

Diann from Australia: “Compulsory voting, as in Australia, overcomes many of the problems outlined in the piece on voting rights. Compulsory voting makes it incumbent on governments to ensure that voting is easy and free. Voting is not seen as the act of a politically active person rather just a person complying with the law. There are other advantages but the big one, given events in the U.S., is that compulsory voting protects the right to vote.”

Lynn from Pennsylvania: “I think there is another issue that should be addressed: the highly inconsistent voting regulations among our 50 states. Yes, we are a union of disparate states who have tremendous autonomy under the Constitution. But voting rights and procedures, at least in national elections, should be the same for all of us. … It shouldn’t be easier or more difficult to vote depending on the state in which you live.”

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