Thoughts from the Therapy Chair with Joe Martino: Election Anxiety

You may have heard that we have an election coming up very soon. For many people, this election is proving to be very anxiety inducing. Add that to the year that 2020 has already been with a sprinkle of “how are we going to do school?” and you have a recipe for high anxiety.
In an effort to find relief, some people are choosing to tell others how they should vote. Just last night, I received an email from the CEO of a tech company telling me that if I didn’t vote for his guy, I was voting against democracy and probably inciting civil war.
I’ve heard people say, “How can you vote for _______ and be a good person? You can fill in the blank with either Trump or Biden or even a third-party candidate.

This polarizing attempt to control outcomes actually will make distress and anxiety worse.
So what do we do? What should we do? Here are some suggestions.

1. Remember, good people can disagree.

It seems that it is standard fare in modern-day politics to make villains of those you disagree with. To be fair, it appears that modern politicians and the media that seems to support them are ok with being a villain, as long as they can fling mud at the other person. Our country is founded upon the idea that good people can disagree about important things. Many people refuse to have conversations about politics or COVID or anything stressful in an attempt to shelter from the stress. It rarely works.

Instead, ask the other person to explain their position in only positive notes. In other words, I’m not interested in hearing why a Trump supporter thinks Biden is bad. I want to know what they like about Trump. The same goes for my friends who support Biden. I assume they dislike Trump. I don’t need them to confirm it for me. I want to know what they like about Biden. If you feel particularly bold, ask them which policies of the person they are supporting will be especially impactful as we move into the next decade.

When people start complaining about what their school district is doing in response to COVID, I will often go through the same process. After making a few attempts to get them to discuss it in this way, I will ask them if we can talk about something else or exit the conversation.
I feel it behooves me to mention that I am talking here from my personal life, not as a professional counselor. It is often beneficial to the client to have space to express fears and their gripes on the other team.

2. Have space to express fears and gripes.

This brings me to my next point; make sure that you have space to express your fears and gripe about the guy. Many people only want to surround themselves with people who agree with them, which becomes unhelpful. There is a tremendous upside in having a few close people that we can express fears to and gripe about what we see going on. Saying these things out loud can be a tremendous benefit to the brain’s processing them. Added benefit comes from people who can push back a little and help us stay grounded. Our brains crave certainty and give us cognitive rewards to feel certain (this is the feeling we get when we know that we know!). The problem is that our bodies will want more of that reward as we get it, and our brain does not care if we are accurate. It only cares that we feel confident. It is important to know what we believe and realize that we could be wrong in many things. Feeling right does not make us accurate in our beliefs.

3. Limit your exposure to the big media companies and the maelstrom of opinions telling you how to vote

Too many big media companies are picking sides and expecting you and me to do the same thing. They seem to want to accomplish this by only sharing the dirt on the other side. I think we have to strive to live in the tension of wanting to be informed and realizing that the information we are getting is often biased. For many people, watching the big news corporations invokes fear. If you are one of them, limit your exposure to watching them. I had one client who went from every day of watching them to every other day. He reported great success in limiting his stress.

One of the ways that our stress is enhanced today is that we are exposed to strong opinions about really big things almost every minute of every day. I unsubscribed from the person telling me that I was voting against democracy and inciting a civil war by not voting for his guy. Not only do I disagree with him, but I think it is inappropriate for someone who has my email from a business list to tell me for whom I should cast my vote. It was made worse by his fear- mongering. He is entitled to his right to be afraid, and I’m not in his tribe of people who offered him space to express it. I don’t have to consume his fear. Our lives will never cross paths in real life. This is a definitive problem with social media. We are often forced to consume people’s fear that we will never actually meet in real life.

4. There are other things we can talk about.

It seems that some of these issues are so big that we have to talk about them all the time. We don’t. There are a lot of other things we can talk about. Even if it’s talking about what we’re learning about ourselves or the world around us right now. My senior did not get homecoming this year. I missed out on seeing her dressed up. She won’t get the opportunity back. Let’s talk about what you learned. She’ll be voting this year. Let’s talk about what you learned. I’ve even spoken with someone about why they think the Lions should keep their head coach. I have many friends on both ends of the political spectrum. We can often find things to talk about that do not involve politics or the virus.

5. Keep living life.

We must keep living life. Find ways to work hard at something you’re passionate about and find meaning through doing. Take time to look up at the sky. Get away for a few days. Go on a color tour. The election will come to an end eventually. Yes, it will have consequences.
Regardless of who wins, we must continue to live our lives. We will only get so many turns around the sun on this orb called earth. We can and must continue to find ways to live well with people, even the ones with whom we disagree.

Joe Martino is a counselor with Joe Martino Counseling Network.  He has locations in Lowell, Grand Rapids, Greenville, and Grandville.  For more information about Joe and his business, check their website or Facebook page.  He and the rest of the counselors and staff are eager to help those in need.  

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