Presidential debate season is a critical and high-stress period during this election season. It’s normal to feel worried while watching, as we grapple with the uncertainty of the country’s future and who will become the next president.
Mental health professionals are feeling the same way. You may think your therapist has it all figured out, but chances are that they’re experiencing anxiety as well. A survey conducted during the 2016 election by the American Psychological Association found that about one in four American workers reported feeling more stressed and overwhelmed at their workplaces due to political discussions. The anxiety of the election ― combined with the existing stressors of COVID-19 ― are making everything feel difficult and distressing.
We asked a variety of mental health professionals what steps they take to manage their anxiety while watching the debates. Here are some of the ways they are coping right now:
Practice radical acceptance
It’s easy to become numb while witnessing stressful situations, like the last debate, said Brooke Huminksi, a psychotherapist based in New England. Radical acceptance, a skill from dialectical behavioral therapy, means acknowledging reality, even if it is challenging.
“When certain topics were discussed during the debate, especially those that felt antithetical to my personal and professional values, I radically accepted my thoughts and feelings. This helped me understand and focus on my emotional response,” Huminski said.
Acknowledge your feelings
“I allow myself to fully feel my emotions, but do not let myself be consumed by them,” said Divya K Chhabra, a fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry in New York. “I understand it is normal to feel anxious and angry, and I am open to other feelings that may arise while watching the debate.”
She practices a technique from acceptance and commitment therapy to accept and embrace her emotions instead of feeling guilty for having them.
“When I find myself heating up during a debate, I check in with the feeling ― as if it is a cloud floating by in the sky ― acknowledge it’s there, and continue on with my day,” she said.
Reach out to your support system
Kristin Meekhof, a therapist and author of ”A Widow’s Guide to Healing,” said she texts a couple of close friends who have the same political views. “It is a way to express my feelings in real time and receive immediate social support,” she explained.
“I was a part of a group chat with 12 family members during the debate,” added Rebecca Leslie, a psychologist based in Atlanta. She found that communicating with loved ones during a tumultuous time not only gave her space to vent, but also helped her feel calm and safe.
Focus on a task that you can control
Given the uncertainty and fear around what the future holds, it is normal to get hung up thinking about the direction of political affairs, Aimee Martinez, a clinical psychologist based in Los Angeles explained.
“When I feel anxious about the future, I re-center myself in the present and try focusing on what is within my control,” Martinez said. “While watching the debate, I often found myself getting up from the couch and doing small things to organize my living space. This helped me reorganize my mind in response to the chaos unfolding on my television.”
Try the “TIP” method
“I like to use a technique from dialectic behavioral therapy called ‘TIP’ skills,’ said Jack Turban, a fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine. The technique represents the following skills: T for temperature, I for intense exercise and P for paired muscle relaxation with your breath. All three can help regulate emotions and cultivate a sense of calm.
Turban said when he experiences intense emotions during the debate, he chooses one of the activities ― for example, putting a frozen washcloth on his face for 60 seconds or going for a spin on his stationary bike ― to help lower anxiety.
Take deep breaths or smell something pleasant
Research shows that this coping mechanism can quickly reduce anxiety and stress. Jessica Gold, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine, is a big fan of this exercise.
“If I get particularly activated with intense emotions while watching the debate, I take some deep breaths with a longer exhale. This helps me stay grounded and concentrate on my breath,” she explained.
She also keeps something strong nearby — like lavender and mint — to engage her senses. This act of mindfulness cultivates a sense of calmness and relaxation.
Go for a walk
“I acknowledge that I cannot control what is going to be said during the debates and survey without judgement as much as I can. But when I hear something disturbing, I take a step back and go for a walk,” said Chase Anderson, a fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.
Anderson puts on his headphones and heads outside to embrace the outdoors for a bit. “Because sometimes, knowing when to step away is just as important as knowing when to stay,” he said.
Journal your feelings
“I keep a pen and notepad handy while I watch the debate to write down whatever emotions and negative thoughts I am feeling,” said Babita Spinelli, a psychotherapist and founder of Opening the Doors Psychotherapy.
Taking notes about her feelings allows her to not only understand them, but also document her perspective. “I am a big proponent of using expressive writing to help reduce my anxiety,” she said.
Watch smaller clips
Riana Elyse Anderson, a psychologist and assistant professor at the school of public health at the University of Michigan, does not watch the debate live, but finds it helpful to watch small highlights of commentary afterwards.
“Too much of the content at once will drive an anxiety- and stress-filled evening,” she said. In the days following the debate, she chooses segments to view, which enhances her efficacy and sense of control.
Carve out time for a positive activity where anxiety can’t creep in
“I look forward to engaging in a positive activity after the debate is over, like reading or listening to music,” said Nekeshia Hammond, a psychologist, author and speaker based in Brandon, Florida. This act of self-care distracts her from her negative emotions and shifts her mindset into a relaxed state of mind, she explained.
Alyssa Mancao, the founder of Alyssa Marie Wellness in Sherman Oaks, California, uses a coping skill called cognitive refocusing to bring her attention from negativity to something positive. “When I notice myself feeling overwhelmed or frustrated, I take a break to focus on something positive to ground myself in a semblance of hope.”
During breaks and after the debate, Mancao finds herself doing things that will elicit feelings of joy or calm, such as listening to a guided meditation or watching an episode of her favorite Netflix show.
Use that mute button
Social media can be overwhelming during and after the debate, said A. Chandan Khandai, a consultation-liaison psychiatrist at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
“When watching the debates, and in general during this election season, I’ve been very conscious of whom I follow or don’t follow on social media,” he said. “I go ahead and mute my friends who are super provocative on my feed as I do not need that noise in my life right now.”
Moreover, instead of focusing on the strong opinions expressed in his social media feed, which can be intense, he takes a look at the Twitter trends so he’s aware of what’s going on, he explained.
Do not hesitate to turn off the TV
“I was on the fence about whether to watch the debate, but ultimately I decided to tune in with the plan to shut it off if and when I start feeling aggravated,” said Sherry Pagoto, a clinical psychologist and professor of allied health sciences at the University of Connecticut. Having this boundary upfront helped her control her emotions so it didn’t disrupt her mood, she added.
“About 40 minutes into the debate, I turned off the TV and switched to a more pleasant and relaxing activity so that the aggravation I had felt didn’t interfere with my sleep,” she said.
Psychologist Deepika Chopra visualizes that she is voting whenever she feels anxious or hopeless during the debate. This coping mechanism cultivates optimism and gives her a sense of ownership in driving forth change, she explained.
“I hold the belief that something good can come out of the action to cast my ballot. By focusing on this optimistic action, I empower myself and inspire others in my network to vote,” she said.
(If you have not already, here’s how you can register to vote or check where your polling place is located.)
Channel your energy into activism
“I’ve been spending time on Get Out The Vote activities, specifically phone banking with voters in the battleground states. These simple activities help me feel in control of what’s going on,” said Nina Vasan, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and chief medical officer of Real, an on-demand therapy platform.
After debates, Vasan funnels her intense emotions into civic action to engage with other voters, such as discussing the various options they have to cast their ballot.
“I’ve found that taking action makes me feel connected to others, and builds a sense of togetherness and community that is important for getting through these hard times,” she said.
Limit the amount of political news you consume
In this turbulent political environment, it is important to stay informed but stay sane, said Gregory Brown, a psychiatrist based in Austin, Texas. After debates, he limits the amount of political news he consumes online to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
He takes in information little by little and then pays attention to how he is feeling throughout the process.
“I find the political process both fascinating and stressful, so I listen to my body and mind when it is time to take a step back and walk away,” he said.
This story has been updated to include more clarification on the “TIP” method.