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Uncertainty Is the Human Brain’s ‘Least Favorite Experience’—Here’s How To Cope With Waiting for 270

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On November 4, the United States woke up to an undecided presidential election as millions of votes are counted in pivotal states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. With no clear end in sight (Pennsylvania, for example, may not have a final count until November 6), an air of uncertainty has settled over those of all party lines. That feeling doesn’t come without an emotional toll. Uncertainty is “pretty much the brain’s least favorite experience,” says psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. And, over the next few hours (or days or weeks), you’ll need to safeguard your own mental health.

“When we feel uncertain, our brains will often cause us angst by running through every possible scenario on repeat,” says Dr. Daramus. Political uncertainty sparks extra stress and anxiety because the results of all elections—and this election in particular—are high stakes; they’re tied up in the future of healthcare, reproductive rights, the environment, and so much more. “The election this year is critically important to many given the hope that the outcome will create the stability and safety that is desperately desired. And given that politics significantly impact our lives on myriad levels—from financial issues and environmental policies to personal rights—the 2020 elections feel incredibly life-changing,” says psychologist Carla Manly, PhD.

Today and tomorrow will be trying and uncomfortable, that’s just a fact. But Dr. Daramaus and Dr. Manly say that you can help buffer the effects of a straight-up exhausting election cycle by taking care of yourself. You’ve already voted. Now, it’s time to be extra-delicate with yourself and others while we all hold our collective breath.

How to deal with election uncertainty, according to psychologists

1. Focus on upbeat activities and hobbies

“It can be helpful to engage in upbeat, distracting activities such as playing board games, reading, crafting, or baking,” says Dr. Manly. “The busy, anxious mind wants you to worry—and the antidote is to train the brain to stay calm and neutral.” Remember, you’re trying to focus your mind here—not distract it. Make sure that you’re choosing projects that truly uplift you. Now is not the time to finally watch all of The Walking Dead, for example.

Try whipping up this quick protein-packed banana bread recipe:

2. Do not aim to function at 100 percent

If you’re reading this right now, my guess is… you don’t feel like you’re operating with a full tank of gas. That’s okay. Dr. Daramus says that crafting a more realistic to-do list for yourself today will ultimately stop work stress from piling onto election stress. “Focus your energy on what absolutely needs done and let other things wait. If possible, focus on people and activities that will give support back to you and put the really draining tasks on the back burner,” she says.

3. Hold your people close (from six feet apart)

We may be socially-distancing—but we all need plenty of social support today. Snuggle with your cat, call your friend and ask how their doing, watch a movie with your significant other. Psycholgists’ orders.

4. Distance yourself from social media and news

“Dramatized news stories only increase our stress and anxiety,” says Dr. Manly. “When possible, decrease your news intake—especially media that is audio and visual in nature. Instead, get a morning or mid-day update via a trusted news site where you can read non-sensationalized stories that are clear and direct.” When you do look for that update, head to a source like this Twitter list that features curated tweets from polling experts and NPR’s election results page.

5. Avoid people who are adding drama to an already-dramatic situation

Speaking of drama, people (your aunt, cousin, or next-door neighbor) can also bring unneeded nervousness to this election. “Avoid people who are overly dramatic, combative, or reactive. Your mental health will thank you for steering clear of negative, inflammatory individuals who increase your stress and anxiety. Create strong, firm boundaries that allow you the time and space you need,” says Dr. Manly.

6. Document these times through journaling, art, or another creative outlet

This whole year has been one for the history books—and there’s no reason that your story can’t be told as well (even if you’re the only person who ever reads it). “Stay safe, but also journal, take photographs, knit a ‘mood scarf’ that chronicles the times by changing the color or stitch to reflect your experiences. Make a playlist or a mood board. Ask your friends and family for their thoughts and experiences, Write it down. Donate it to a museum or save it for a time when people can’t remember this period of history. See if anyone else in your life wants to keep their own record,” says Dr. Daramus. One day, you’ll have your own record to look back on. That means something.

7. Outsource your coping skills

“Instead of struggling to manage your own moods, let a meditation app, music, art, or nature take over some of the work,” says Dr. Daramus. Today, meditation app Headspace is offering free meditations for dealing with politically-charged emotions,  so that’s a good place to start.

8. Frequently ask yourself “What can I control right now?”

You voted. Now it’s time to ask yourself what else you can control. You can’t control Pennsylvania’s results and you can’t control President Donald Trump’s reactions; you can control how well you care for yourself and others.

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Experts Referenced
Aimee Daramus, PsyD, LCP
Clinical psychologist
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Carla Manly, PhD
Dr. Carla Marie Manly is a clinical psychologist and wellness expert. Blending traditional psychotherapy with alternative mindfulness practices, such as yoga and meditation, Dr. Manly knows the importance of creating healthy balance, awareness, and positivity in life.
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