Written by Chay Tanchanco, LMFT
It's not news to you that the nation is collectively under a lot of stress right now, if you're clicking on this blog. You're experiencing some anxiety with good reason; much of what feels safe seems that it is bent on this election. I also just watched the social dilemma on Netflix, so there are a lot of insights I gained about the crossroads between social media and mental health that will be in upcoming blogs.
First of all, I want to say this: You are here. You are seeking help. You are valid in your feelings. You are craving solutions, relief. You have empathy for those around you who are likely experiencing some anxiety too. These may seem trivial to state out loud. In actuality, they are the building blocks for what I tell my clients to do all the time:
Give yourself the credit for your feelings and your actions.
Where it is due, you must remind yourself of what is true in the moment and what you are doing in the interest of helping yourself. We are taught by our society regularly that we need to seek answers outside of ourselves, that our sad/angry/fearful feelings are flaws that need to be erased as quickly as possible, and our excited/awe/liked feeling needs to be chased. This makes us susceptible to messages that we are powerless.
Our feelings are all guides. They are "friends, not food", to borrow the expression from Finding Nemo. We tend to consume our feelings rather than experience them. We have been dealing with a heightened level of collective, prolonged uncertainty for a long time. We are experiencing it in a relative environment of isolation. We can acknowledge these things in order to give ourselves the credit, without giving in to despair.
Name what is certain and what is not.
If you've ever told a kid that they were going to receive a surprise at the end of the day, and then had to disappoint them when that surprise did not come, then you know what it feels like to expect something positive to happen and then feel the loss of the thing you did not have. Does this mean that we give in to the hopelessness and the void? Absolutely not.
Name what is certain.
"I put my vote in the voting box. I am tracking it using Where's My Ballot. I am talking to my friends today on the phone. I have a roof over my head. I am going to talk to my therapist this week. I am reading sources that I trust. I am taking care of myself by (eating, sleeping, praying, journaling, watching something I enjoy, reading, listening to music, staying connected to someone I love, etc.)"
AND name what is not. "I will not know the results by tomorrow. I am not sure what is going to be on the news tomorrow. I can't tell what people in my family are feeling today."
By balancing both sides, it gives your brain some bearing, like trying to balance on a boat about to flip over in the water. If you flail wildly or lean too heavily to one side, you'll likely fall.
Make a Self-Care Plan.
When I woke up this morning, the Shine app popped up with an important reminder to make a plan for election anxiety. I saw a comic in an earlier week that laid out the artist's plan for making comforting meals, putting a limit on news and social media, and watching a movie with hope despite the darkness (they suggested Lord of the Rings, and I'm biased because I love that movie trilogy, but what a great suggestion!).
With my clients, I work on creating an anxiety/panic attack kit. Notice your 5 senses, sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. Can you find soothing/comforting objects in each category and put them together in a 'kit' for yourself? When you're panicking or anxious, it is hard to think. When you have your things together, looking for them gives your brain less data to process when it is under duress.
Balance the Thoughts, Limit Social Media
This is worth saying again. You're going to see it on every mental health platform, but it really is true. Limit your social media in times of stress. Put it in the other room. Social media is designed to trigger your brain like drugs do. Every time you swipe, the apps we use to connect to our friends and family are designed to gather that data and give you things that increase your usage.
Emotions are absolutely key to this process. The more afraid you feel, the more likely you will click on things to feed that fear. The more liked you feel, the more you want to increase that feeling. In order to balance our thoughts, we need to keep social media at bay. Social media is designed to unbalance your thoughts and emotions so that you keep feeding into the cycle. During election season, especially this year, it is important to keep our balance.
An Encouraging Parting Thought on Helplessness & Hopefulness
Mark Manson, author of "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck", has many interesting thoughts about life, philosophy, and mental health, and though sometimes I don't always agree with him, I appreciate his style and his principles. If you don't mind the use of curse words, you can check it out yourself.
In his Monday email newsletter, he wrote about this topic of election anxiety as well. He took an intriguing angle, coming from the angle of psychological and neurological research. He wrote about a researcher, Seligman, who returned to a study he originally did in the 1960's. In his first run of the research, he found that when he punished dogs unpredictably and randomly, they stopped responding to the punishments and laid down. This became known as "learned helplessness", and it helped psychologists understand the reasons why victims of abuse often stay in situations that are harmful.
Then he did his study again. And he found himself wrong.
"...Seligman said neuroscience showed that learned helplessness had it backwards. We do not inherently have control of our lives and, once punished by the world, learn to become helpless.
"It's the other way around: we start out helpless and must learn to take control of our lives.
"It's not learned helplessness; it's learned hopefulness. ... Taking control of our lives and developing hopeful feelings is something that we must learn and practice and protect within ourselves."
Mental health is built on our daily practices. We can change our lives with small steps every day. We do change our lives with small steps every day, whether we realize it or not. And with small steps, we can also change the future of our country.