From the droves of people voting by mail to the widespread protests for racial justice to the pandemic and worries about the electoral process itself, the 2020 election cycle provides “a recipe for a lot of angst” on Election Day, according to Alvin Bernard Tillery Jr., a professor of political science at Northwestern University.
“We’re seeing a huge increase in the need for mental health services,” said Eva Escobedo, a therapist specializing in relationship issues at Just Mind, a counseling center in Austin, Texas. With the pandemic keeping many families apart, the usual rallying points — like shared love of a sports team — have frayed.
“One of the very few things that remains, and not only remains but is heightened, is our political standing,” Escobedo said. “I think that people are way more polarized even within their families and essential groups than they ever have been before.”
So how can you engage with friends and family members across the political divide on Election Day and afterward without succumbing to fights and finger-pointing? It starts with addressing your own big feelings.
Prepare for no results.
Uncertainty produces anxiety, but you can counter that, in part, by understanding what to expect on Election Day this year. In the past, many people have shared the ritual of watching the returns and staying up until the election has been called. This year, Tillery observed, there’s a significant chance that the presidential election will not be called Tuesday night. Just eight states have said they anticipate reporting 98% of the unofficial results by noon Wednesday, so many votes may not have been counted yet.
Remember, this is not necessarily a cause for concern in itself: Tallying provisional ballots and ballots received by mail takes more time, and states like Pennsylvania and parts of Michigan don’t allow absentee ballots to be processed until Election Day. In some places, election officials may also need to reach out to voters to verify their ballots. All of this helps ensure that an individual’s vote is counted.
“Voters should get some comfort from knowing that we do have counting procedures and auditing procedures and voter notification procedures that would make it better for us to be calm and let those processes play out,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the Voting Rights and Election Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit public policy institute affiliated with New York University.
In the month between Election Day and the Electoral College’s Dec. 8 deadline to settle disputes over the results, it’s possible that candidates will try to claim victory prematurely or manipulate the results. Be on the lookout for viral disinformation: Check the provenance of news articles or memes making polarizing political claims or calling the election before a mainstream news outlet has done so.
Cool off if you need to.
According to a poll released by the American Psychological Association in October, 68% of adults reported that the election was a significant source of stress. This is due, at least in part, to the vitriol and name-calling exhibited by the candidates, according to Steven Stosny, a couples counselor based in Gaithersburg, Maryland, who came up with the term “election stress disorder” during the 2016 election cycle.
“That kind of negative emotion being displayed by public figures gets very contagious,” he said.
Election Day isn’t going to end the anxiety — especially if the race hasn’t been called for a candidate. So before you bring up politics with family members, take a moment to assess where your head’s at.
That way, you’ll be better equipped to handle potentially challenging, contentious conversations. You may need “to stew,” Escobedo said. “Give yourself a break.”
Limit your ambient exposure to social media, where attacks on a candidate or policy can feel like attacks on you personally. Stosny suggests setting aside specific periods to check the news or your social media feeds. If you do engage with relatives or friends on Facebook or Twitter, try to take those conversations offline, where you might have a more successful and meaningful exchange. Nevertheless, Dr. Jena Lee, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, cautioned against assuming you’ll be an anxious mess on Election Day. “Humans are quite resilient,” she said. “There’s a strong possibility that you will be able to cope.”
Have productive conversations with family.
It will remain important to discuss political issues and what’s at stake with those closest to you, even if you tend to disagree. Those conversations don’t have to get heated, even if you’re confronted with a gloating or irritable relative. “If someone is angry at you, you want to see that they’re really feeling hurt and devalued,” Stosny said.
If a family member approaches you with anger, try to respond with compassion. Consider setting a time limit on your political discussions, Lee said, agreeing in advance to a fun, shared activity when your time is up.
That might sound easier said than done. But several experts agreed that instead of debating specific policies, you’d be better served grounding your conversations in values like equality, justice and fairness, as well as being candid about what you’re feeling and why.
“The most important work that we can do as citizens in that gap between the votes being cast and counted is zoom out,” said Beth Silvers, who co-hosts the podcast “Pantsuit Politics” and co-wrote the book “I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening)” with Sarah Stewart Holland. “Do we want every vote to be counted? Do we want to have confidence in the results, even if it’s a result we don’t like? What kind of commitments do we owe each other in this period?”
Political and social divides among your family members and peers are not going to be resolved by this election alone, even once the results are tallied and certified. But persistent, thoughtful communication can help bridge differences. “Chip, chip, chip, chip, chip away over conversations based in fact,” Tillery said, “and asking them what they think is morally right.”
Stay active and connected.
If you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed, or need to take time out of a challenging conversation, go for a walk or run, and try to spend at least 30 minutes outside. Studies have linked aerobic exercise to improved emotional regulation and the growth of new neurons; even moderate exercise like walking can yield benefits.
Other analog activities can help you cope, too. “Anxious thoughts race by,” Stosny said, “and the faster they go, the less realistic they get.” Instead of dwelling on them, write them out longhand; this will slow down and moderate their frenetic pace. Next to each source of fear, write down how you’ll respond to it.
Hug family members within your bubble — hugs promote the release of oxytocin, a hormone that helps regulate stress — and make plans with friends to occupy your mind.
Involve yourself in local issues. 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. Still, you can mitigate that feeling through other productive political actions.
“One of the things COVID has made abundantly clear in so many aspects of our life is that we have a lot of cracks in the system,” Pérez said. “Our elections have felt the strain.”
Contact your representatives before the new legislative session begins, Pérez suggested, lobbying them to improve funding for the elections, expand voter registration efforts, and safeguard voting and auditing processes.
Reach out to your local school district to find out how you can help students in need, attend a protest or disseminate reliable sources of information about the electoral process within your social circle. If you can do any of this with a friend or family member, even better.
“This is the first step in a long journey of really reimagining what America is going to look like and what America is going to be about,” Holland said. “That’s not going to end when the voting does.”
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