How To Protect Your Mental Health Before (and After) Inauguration Day, According to a Therapist

Photo: Stocksy / Alberto Bogo // Getty Images /Rudy Sulgan // W+G Creative
Watching rioters smash their way into the United States Capitol did not offer the refreshing reset many of us had hoped for at the start of 2021. The inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on January 20 is expected to bring about even more violence, further illuminating the broad political divisions the incoming administration will inherit. That said, a certain level of anxiety leading up to the inauguration of the 46th president is a completely valid response, says Jennifer Dragonette, PsyD, executive director of the Newport Institute.

"All of us humans in America, let alone the world, have been under just an intense amount of stress for the past year," says Dr. Dragonette. "[We're] heading into this very stressful event already not being very well-resourced. Our bodies are not meant to sustain that level of chronic anxiety for such a long time. And so we're already—and this isn't to bring doom and gloom, but just to have some acceptance and grace around it—we're not at our best right now."

In order to manage sustained anxiety tied to the inauguration, Dr. Dragonette says to make sure you're doing all you can to care for yourself.

"What we really need to do is pull back in and focus on truly taking care of ourselves," she says. "And I know that sometimes self care can sound like this fluffy thing of, 'Oh, just go do some yoga.' But true self care is looking at all of these aspects as though you're taking care of a small child. If you were in charge of a little one, you would make sure they ate food, and got sleep, and got some exercise, and had some social contact even if that's [virtual or] socially distanced."

To take care of your self before, during, and after Inauguration Day, plan ahead. "We know this is going to make us anxious and worried and maybe angry. Setting things up ahead of time is a brilliant idea," says Dr. Dragonette.

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How to manage and prepare yourself for inauguration anxiety

1. Schedule calls that will help you feel supported

I know that when I'm feeling stressed or overwhelmed and need friends the most, I convince myself that my loved ones are busy and don't have time for me at that moment. To avoid that feeling, schedule time for friends before the anxieties get the best of you.

"I would recommend that people reach out to close friends," she says," and saying, 'Can we plan a virtual lunch date on the day after Inauguration Day?' Or, 'Can we plan to get together by phone?'"

If a professional helps you out during stressful times, try to schedule time to be with them.

"If people are in therapy, try setting up a therapy appointment, or if people are in recovery, [they can] reach out to their sponsor to have something planned." Having something set up ahead of time forces you to get social contact and pulls you out of the trap of isolation," says Dr. Dragonette.

2. Set social boundaries

While planning conversations, you may want to avoid friends or family that might make you feel worse.

"There are so many families that have been really torn apart by all of the political unrest over the past few years. And this is not a time, this the next week or 10 days, is not a time to try to mend those fences," says Dr. Dragonette. "There's plenty of time for that later, but when we're in acute distress it's okay to set boundaries. It's okay to take care of yourself. It's okay to reach out to your family members and just say, 'Hey, I know we see this really differently. I don't think it's going to be constructive for us to be watching the inauguration together or debate this today. That's not what we need right now. I care about you. I want to have a relationship with you, but this is not a topic that I can discuss right now.'"

3. Set your meals up for success

If ordering a pizza makes you feel best when you're overwhelmed, plan to do that. But if pizza is just your backup when cooking feels impossible and you know a homecooked meal would make you feel better, see what you can do ahead of time. Maybe that looks like prepping a meal ahead of time or setting something up with a friend, asking "Hey, could you bring me a meal tomorrow? And I'll bring you a meal the next day?" Dr. Dragonette says setting up a meal train to support yourself or stocking your cabinets with snacks that you know you will make you feel good can help a lot.

4. Limit your exposure to the news

"As much as we want to know what's going on with the media and what's happening in politics, we can find that information in bite-sized chunks," says Dr. Dragonette. "We don't have to spend all day watching the news in order to figure out what's happening or the kind of doomscrolling that people do during high-stress times."

To do this, she suggests scheduling time to worry about the news. Tell yourself: "Okay, from 9:00 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. I'm going to let myself read the news," or, "When I get home from work, I'm going to sit down and I'm going to watch the news for 15 minutes." Scheduling some time allows to stay informed without going off the deep end. "You could also set something up with a trusted friend, 'Hey text me if something really big happens, but I'm going to stay off social media for the next couple of days because I know how much anxiety it brings up for me,'" says Dr. Dragonette.

And if you get your news online, resist the urge to read the comments.

"Typically the comment section—and I personally have experienced this, too—that's where you get people who are the most inflamed on both sides of an issue," says Dr. Dragonette. "You're probably not going to get a really reasoned approach to the topic."

5. Take a walk

As trite as it may sound, she says that when your body is feeling stress or anxiety, movement can help to rid your mind of such feelings.

"When we have anxiety, particularly chronic anxiety, our whole physiological system is set up so that it's really preparing us to run," says Dr. Dragonette. "When we have anxiety all the blood flow goes to our limbs. Our pupils dilate, we stop being able to take in as much information, and we stop digesting our food. And so that's why we recommend getting physical activity because that's what your body needs in those moments. You need to kind of get those chemicals out."

6. Remember you don't need to be perfect

If you do nothing on the above list because everything feels like too much to handle right now, that's okay.

"This isn't the time to try to do things perfectly," says Dr. Dragonette. "We're holding ourselves to really high standards that we should be able to power through this amount of stress. And so we forget that we're already so depleted. It is okay if this is the time where you just kind of relax and watch something on TV or a movie that is kind of like a guilty pleasure. It's okay to take a break from the chronic anxiety around us. It will be there when we come back and we might be in a better space to go in and approach it and do something meaningful, like joining social action groups or something that can have a real meaningful impact."

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