#WriteOnSarah: Post-Election Anxiety
It’s a worry about what might happen.
A worry about the future.
The best way to manage these fears is to stay grounded in the present moment.
I have spent the past few years working on my relationship with anxiety and here’s the good news: it doesn’t matter what the worry is about, the technique for calming it is pretty much the same.
Whether I am worried about the results of an election, or an interview I have next week, or my child’s behavior, or the odd sound coming from the plane’s engine, I know a few things about the nature of worry that are more helpful to my mental health than controlling, fixing or solving the individual scenarios that might flood my thoughts.
So, I’m worried.
I admit it.
I am worried about the changes that could come and I am unsettled by the unpredictable nature of the past several months.
But I know this feeling of anxiety. I’ve felt it before, and I hate it. It may stem from the biological fight or flight response that was once useful to our ancestors; it may even come in handy in the present-day when immediate and obvious dangers stare us in the face. But nothing about this post-election anxiety can be productive until we clear away the mirages it props up as real.
So what is real right now?
We may be tempted to shut the world out right now, and maybe some will want to sleep. But when you’re ready, if you can open your eyes and let the world in, some of the anxiety about the future will filter through you and out.
In the physical sense, you are safe. Take a walk. Set the timer on your cell phone for five minutes and meditate for just a bit. Do guided meditation. Listen to your favorite song. Do something calming to bring the breath back into your body and let the parasympathetic nervous system relax.
Another way to ground yourself in what is real right now is to do a mental game in which tell yourself to see, hear, and feel five things. Then four then three; then two; then one. This is a tactic that the former pilot and founder of the fear of flying program SOAR, Tom Bun, shares, and it helps when panic begins to set off the spiral of adrenaline and fear. I mention this because sometimes, once the pressure of a stressful situation passes, we allow ourselves to unleash what has been bottled up inside. If you find yourself a bit vulnerable to panic attacks then, it’s helpful to recognize them early and quickly turn your mind to something as engaging and immediate as this grounding game. I know others do online puzzles, or crosswords, or mental math.
I realize this sounds simplistic in the context of greater worries, but the battle with anxiety is won one minute, hour, and day at a time.
A difficult truth.
Pain and anxiety are always present when there is a disconnection between expectations and reality. My own therapist introduced me to this concept, a Buddhist principle that says desire leads to suffering.
When I want something specific or have expectations, I am more often than not let down. If I live in a state of yearning, frustrated by not getting what I want or expect, or by people not behaving as I wish they would, I feel powerless. And that makes me anxious.
It is a constant effort to balance setting an intention with accepting what is beyond my control, but this way of relating with reality brings less pain and ultimately helps me find more joy.
What is real right now is love.
You get to decide how much news you watch, what radio programs you listen to, and when you want to read the headlines. You can choose to take care of yourself and those you love and to set boundaries with those who offer no compassion. Forgive yourself for feeling vulnerable and find a friend with whom you can create something positive, like a meal, or an artistic endeavor, or an act of kindness. Show love to your children, your friends and your neighbors.
Anxiety produces a mirage that grows and it will steal your energy, your perception, your creativity and your real power: the power that comes when you are right here, right now, present and most capable of good.
Anxiety will tell you to lose hope, to be afraid, to imagine the worst. And it will tell you that momentary setbacks are fateful indicators of catastrophic things to come. It will make you less able to be the person you want to be when the future finally arrives.
I have a biological predisposition to anxiety. I can invent more catastrophic “what-if” scenarios in one minute than most folks can do in a week.
And I’m here to tell you: we think anxiety has a hold on us, but in fact, we are the ones holding on to it. We are so fortunate to live in an era in which there are many, many ways to practice loosening that grip, and if today is an impetus for you to begin that journey, then it’s going to be a good road ahead.
If you’re experiencing anxiety or distress related to the recent presidential election, find tips for coping from the American Psychological Association here.
Sarah Vander Schaaff is a writer, blogger and a mother of two from New Jersey, who has struggled with Obsessive-compulsive disorder for as long as she can remember. Her courageous column in the Washington Post (“Obsessive –compulsive disorder nearly ruined her life”, January 4th) received international attention for its honesty and openness. In this regular series, Sarah will write about the mental health challenges we all face in day to day life.