“If we lose, I just don’t know whether the country can survive,” my client said. “Things are getting too crazy.” I heard those words before. From clients of the opposite party. The upcoming election has become every American’s—Republicans and Democrats, therapists and clients— worry number one. To many of us, the idea of losing feels like an existential threat, one that is igniting core fears about our health, our safety, our connections with our loved ones and community. We may be donating time and/or money to our campaign of choice, but it doesn’t feel like enough. We’re still getting regular doses of fight-or-flight neurochemicals and hormones urging us to, Do something! Make certain everything will be OK! So, what are we to do?
Like any worry, election uncertainty is best addressed with a clear strategy. Trying to “wing it” while we are hijacked by the monkey mind won’t get us the peace we’re looking for. When working with my clients, and working with myself, I’ve found the following 3 essential strategies to be most effective.
1. Adopt an Expansive Mindset. When faced with an uncertain outcome like the upcoming election, our mind’s tendency is to contract around all the negative outcomes that may happen—the possibility of losing, disputed vote counts, widespread litigation, protests and social unrest. If we think we can only rest and relax once these negative outcomes are eliminated, we’ll burn ourselves out with ineffectual activity and worry. To counter this tendency, make an intention to allow unresolved possibilities to remain unresolved. For example: Once I’ve done what is within my control, I will accept the uncertainty that remains.
2. Curb the Urge. Notice the ineffectual activity you’re impulsively engaging in trying to gain certainty about the election—and curb it! Constantly checking news feeds for signs that your side is winning, name-calling, trying to convince others that they are wrong, and replaying political talking points repeatedly in your head—all certainty-seeking behaviors—are triggered by our overactive limbic system, and they only feed the cycle of worry and anxiety. When we curb the urge to reassure ourselves instead, we are cultivating a new expansive mindset, demonstrating to ourselves that we can tolerate uncertainty. Which brings us to our last essential strategy.
3. Welcome Negative Emotion. While the emotions that accompany uncertainty may feel unbearable, resisting or distracting ourselves from them bring only temporary relief; they inevitably show up again, banging on our door to be let in. Treat these emotions as you would a guest, welcoming them by name. Hello, Anger. Come on in, Dread! Use your breath to open up space in your body, space for theses feelings to play themselves out. Contrary to what you think, fight-or-flight neurochemicals and hormones do metabolize on their own! To help this process along, redirect your thoughts back to your expansive mindset, which accepts everything you can’t directly control, including your own fears.
Note that each of these three strategies is equally essential. They just don’t work well without each other. It’s a tall order, I know— like learning to juggle three balls in the air. And that last ball may sound more like juggling a chainsaw! But the good news is that the skills you will gain practicing these three strategies will help you learn to relax in the middle of this election’s chaos, so you’ll be more likely to take the wise action that is called for. And moving forward into 2021, you’ll find that using these strategies will bring more peace and clarity to the rest of your life as well. There is no uncertainty too big, or too small, for anyone using these 3 essential steps to master.
Click here to listen to a guided meditation that helps us learn to relax in the midst of uncertainty.
About the Author
Jennifer Shannon, LMFT is a cognitive-behavioral therapist and author specializing in anxiety disorders. She is the co-founder of the Santa Rosa Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and the author of Don't Feed The Monkey Mind, The Anxiety Survival Guide for Teens, The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook for Teens, and The Anxiety Virus, 3 Essential Strategies to Build Immunity to Uncertainty in the Covid Crisis.
All published by New Harbinger Press.