5 tips for managing election stress

Woman looks at laptop distraught.

Release Date: November 6, 2020

Mark Seery head shot.
“Research shows that experiencing a sense of control is helpful when managing stressful situations. ”
Mark Seery, associate professor
Department of Psychology, University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Mark Seery, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo, studies stress and coping.

Instead of trying to avoid election-related stress, he says, it is possible to think about and approach stress differently, thereby making it less “stressful.” Here are five tips from Seery supported by psychological science:

Control what you can, not what you can’t

“Research shows that experiencing a sense of control is helpful when managing stressful situations. Of course it is never possible to control everything in a situation, so if you try for that impossible standard, you will always fall short and can feel out of control. Instead, look for what you can control around the edges. For example, focusing on wishing that other people voted differently in the election won’t be helpful. Instead, focus on potentially controllable things — even mundane, everyday things — like getting something done for work or around the house. It hasn’t fixed the world, but you can feel like you have some control, and that you aren’t spinning helplessly out of control in a crazy world. We can actively work to establish areas of order around us, and experiencing that kind of control leads to better coping.”

Focus on gains, not losses

“Research shows that focusing on what there is to be gained in a stressful situation can lead to experiencing it in a more positive way than focusing on what there is to be lost. Maybe you didn’t get what you wanted in this election, but going forward, volunteering for a cause you care about gives you the chance to help make the world a better place, make new friends, and feel a sense of control. This can further make the world seem more meaningful by emphasizing, for example, that there still is good out there.”

Build a team

“Research shows that we see ourselves as members of groups, and in the face of perceived differences — such as based on politics — group members can view each other through a hostile lens, as though they are rivals. However, these divisions can fall away when people instead see themselves as part of the same team. For example, we are all Americans who care about the country enough to engage in the political process, even if we have very different views about the best path forward. During a political argument with neighbors or family members, it can help to treat those who disagree with you like they are on your side rather than enemies. You can do this by letting them know that you are really interested in hearing their opinions and finding what you agree on.”

Be a fly on the wall

“Research shows that when we think about stressful things, the point of view we take matters. It is normal to see the situation through our own eyes. For example, you might say to yourself, ‘I feel anxious about where the country is headed.’ However, taking a third-person perspective — in other words, viewing yourself and situation as though you were an outside observer or fly on the wall — can create a more positive experience. Although it might seem odd at first, this can be accomplished by talking to yourself using pronouns like he, she, and you or by referring to yourself by name, instead of thinking in terms of I and my. In other words, reflect using language like ‘she feels anxious,’ or ‘Chris feels angry.’ This doesn’t ignore your feelings, but it does help create a sense of psychological distance from them, which lessens their negative effects.”

Different strokes for different folks

“There is no single recipe for perfect coping. For example, just because someone else swears by yoga or Netflix binges (or anything else) doesn’t mean that those options are your best path to cope well with stress. Finding what works for you is key. That said, some things people do to cope with stress are harmful, like acting out in ways that hurt themselves or others. Drinking too much alcohol, for instance, may relieve anxiety in the short term, but it comes with the potential for serious negative consequences. When choosing among beneficial options, it is OK to have different preferences for managing stress than other people. If one technique doesn’t work for you, try another — you aren’t doomed to be overwhelmed by stress.”

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