Preserving Your Mental Health During the 2016 Election

by the Rev. Geof Smith, Deacon at St. James

With (mercifully) less than three weeks to go before the general election, we’re reminded over and over again that the race to the bottom is far from over.  And as each new headline feels like a body blow, it may be worth taking a step back and asking whether following the political process this year is a healthy thing to do.

Robinson Meyer, in an article for The Atlantic*, spoke with mental health experts and offers the following advice:

  • Practice self-compassion. “It’s very important for us to have compassion for whatever it is what we’re experiencing,” says Renee Lertzman, a psychological researcher. That’s important even if what the feeling is a desire not to know about something scary.  If you feel fear or hopelessness, don’t judge the emotion itself or attack yourself for either not caring enough or not doing enough.  We need to find a way to relate to our own experience with kindness. Self-compassion allows us to actually get in touch with what we’re really feeling.  
  • Anxiety about an outcome or threat is completely normal.  If you are somebody who considers a particular candidate to be a problem, there’s no way to not be living with some degree of anxiety right now. Worry or anxiety about a scary outcome is often healthy—or what psychologists call “adaptive behavior.”  Adaptive behavior helps us come to terms with, and function in, the world.  We’re all biologically wired to worry. This tendency often helps us, but it’s also possible for it to get stuck in a never-ending worry loop.

Because normal worry can tip over into pathological anxiety, it’s important to differentiate between productive and unproductive anxiety.  Productive worry can push someone into taking a positive action. Unproductive worry, on the other hand, will just loop indefinitely without ever finding a positive object. Outside of a political context, a good example of this is a college student worrying before a big test. If a student uses her worry to make herself study for the test, then her anxiety was productive. But if she sits there fretting that she’s not smart enough to pass college—and has no plans to drop out—then she is experiencing unproductive worry.

How do you differentiate between the two?  Ask yourself whether the worry is centering on something you can take some action about.  If you’re worried about something beyond your control, focus on how unlikely it is that the worst case scenario may happen.  Think about the constraints or limits that all politicians face—for example, Congress and the Supreme Court. If you fear a candidate, keep in mind that person won’t be able to do a lot of what they claim they want to do.

  • Focus on the present and make choices about what you pay attention to. Turn your attention to more useful, more productive, more satisfying things, like thinking about how your life will remain the same.  List as many things that you do now that you will still be able to do regardless of who is elected.
  • Prayer can help.  Or yoga, or knitting, or gardening.  Anything where you’ve turned your attention away from the worries; and the more you do it, the better you get at it.
  • Talk about it.  Talk with friends and family in frank conversations about what worries you.
  • Take action.  Lertzman says, “We’re designed neurologically and cognitively to have an effect, so get involved, volunteer for something.  The Episcopal Church recognizes voting and political participation as an act of Christian stewardship, so go ahead and engage in conversation on public policy issues, work with voter registration and issue education campaigns, and advocate to counteract threats to voting rights.

We can get through this, together!

 

*Robinson Meyer, “How to Preserve Your Mental Health Despite the 2016 Election,” The Atlantic, theatlantic.com, May 24, 2016.