October Reflections: On Facing Uncertainty

It may be Halloween, but this year I’m struggling to get into the spooky spirit. As if 2020 hasn’t been stressful enough already, we’re finally just days away from one of the most important elections in recent memory.  If you’re feeling anxious about the election, you’re not alone: a recent survey by the American Psychological Association found that 68% of Americans view the upcoming election on November 3 as a “significant source of stress” in their lives. 

Given record rates of mail-in voting this year due to Covid-19 concerns, officials are warning that we probably won’t have definitive results by the end of Election Day. We’ll have to prepare ourselves for “Election Week” as trailing absentee ballots get tallied, and the possibility of a contested election means we might be looking at “Election Month.” 

While there’s a lot of uncertainty ahead, we’re going to get through this week, this month, and this rollercoaster of a year–I promise! To fortify your patience and resilience for the days ahead, here are some suggestions:

Get rest. In the coming days and weeks, prioritize sleep (ideally 8 hours a night) no matter what else is going on. When we sleep, our brains process and store information and  emotional input, which improves cognitive function, memory, and helps stabilize our mood during waking hours. Sleep is also when cells called microglia work to strengthen our immune response by attacking infections and repairing damaged neurons. Being well-rested won’t just help you to deal with stress and possible sickness; it’ll make you a better friend, partner, worker, and advocate for the issues that matter to you. 

If you’re having trouble sleeping, doctors recommend the following:

  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule 7 days a week to condition your body to know when it’s time for bed and when to wake up
  • Avoid screens at night, since they emit blue light that tricks the body into thinking it’s daytime
  • Steer clear of caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol before bed (while alcohol can make people sleepy, it also disrupts deeper stages of sleep)
  • Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and free of tempting technology like phones and tablets

Limit  your news and social media intake. Doomscrolling may be one of 2020’s most popular pastimes, but psychologists warn that the habit, rather than being informative, mostly just serves to heighten our anxiety and dread. There’s hardly any breaking news that requires your immediate attention: remember that before cable TV and the internet delivered us our current turbocharged 24-hour media cycle, most folks got their updates just twice a day, with the morning paper and evening news broadcasts. By scheduling one or two discrete blocks of “news time” into your day and reserving the rest for focusing on other things, you can stay informed while protecting your time and mental health. (Experts recommend cutting off your news intake in the early evening, to limit stress as you’re winding down before bed.) 

Find other outlets for your attention. Make space for activities that bring you pleasure and have nothing to do with the election.  Track down that sourdough starter you abandoned back in April and bake a fresh loaf. Carve a pumpkin. Get lost in a paperback thriller or a bingeable TV show. Set up a phone date with a friend or family member. Listen to an album you love. 

Keep moving. Exercise is one of our best antidotes for anxiety and depression, filling the body with feel-good endorphins while improving circulation and strength. Aim to incorporate some form of exercise into your daily routine, even if it’s just taking a walk through your neighborhood. Maintaining a regular exercise schedule won’t just help you feel better while you’re awake; it also leads to deeper and more restful sleep. 

Make a plan for Election Day, and the day(s) after. Maybe you’re one of the Americans who voted early or cast an absentee ballot; if not, I hope you’re planning to vote on November 3. Double check your polling location, voter registration, and ballot information ahead of time to ensure a smoother voting experience. If you anticipate needing to wait in a long line, check the weather and come prepared with water, snacks, sunscreen or an umbrella. 

Next, find a support network for the long hours (days? weeks?) to come. Touch base with friends or family members who can celebrate or commiserate with you as results roll in. Be kind to yourself and others, and only make space for those who will do the same for you. If this process drags on, as it very well may, allow yourself to take breaks, decompress, and turn your attention to other things that matter to you. 

Remember that the work goes on. Elections come and go, but the real work of change is happening every day, in ways both big and small. While politicians make headlines, ordinary people are organizing to improve their communities, to protect vulnerable populations and the environment. As Civil Rights hero Angela Davis says, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” If you feel helpless about the state of the country (or the world), find a local issue or organization that matters to you and throw your support behind it. You can always make a meaningful difference in your community