Between the constant campaign news and the repeated calls from phone bankers to get to the polls, U.S. presidential election season is always hectic. This election season, however, is truly unprecedented. A pandemic, a severe economic downturn, natural disasters, and nationwide Black-led racial justice protests, have left many of us needing a moment to step back and catch our breath.
At the same time, politics — in whatever form that means to you — are hugely important. This is particularly true for people of color, essential workers, LGBTQIA+ people, and others who have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus and by racist and anti-minority state violence.
Translating this passion into political campaigning, activism, and other public-spirited work can be a definite boost to our mental health. It can increase our sense of social connection, imbue us with a sense of purpose, and strengthen our bonds with our communities — one of the most important factors in mental wellness. But when the stakes of political engagement are so high, we can feel easily overwhelmed — and it can be difficult to take time to recharge.
That’s why it’s so important to continue to take care of ourselves, even as we change the world. “Give yourself space to be aware of what is happening in the news but also take steps to engage in self-care,” said Talkspace therapist Rachell O’Neill, Ph.D, LPCC-S. By creating a healthy media diet, focusing on what you can control rather than what you can’t, and giving yourself plenty of down time, you can keep your cool this election season — while still making a difference.
Choose a Balanced Information Diet
It’s late at night, and you’re drifting off to sleep, when — ding! An alert lights up your phone. It’s a message from a friend with an outrageous Tweet from a political opponent. You click on the link to the Tweet, start scrolling…and next thing you know, two hours have passed and you’re deep in an online rabbit hole. You’ve been caught doom scrolling.
While the lure of that lit-up screen can feel irresistible — and while it’s true that the news never stops — mindless social media consumption can significantly worsen our mental health. It can make us feel depressed and paralyzed by the news, rather than informed and empowered.
Rather than endlessly taking in political information, said O’Neill, “Try to focus on being intentional about how you process what you are reading or what you are listening to.” That can mean setting limits on how much news you consume each day, and how much screen time you have outside of work or school. That can also mean picking a couple trusted news sources and sticking to them, rather than trying to take everything in at once.
“Everyone has a different threshold for the information that they can take in and fully process,” said O’Neill. “Experiment with the amount of time that works for you,” and try to stick to that limit every day. That way, you can truly understand and process what you’re seeing — and prevent yourself from losing sleep to Twitter.
Focus on What You Can Control
Political activism can empower us at a time when so many things are out of our control. Understanding that many of the problems that we as a society face are human-made — and thus can be changed — is deeply meaningful. At the same time, this realization can also cause us to put too much pressure on ourselves. When there is so much work to be done, we may think, why rest?
O’Neill says that mindset is a recipe for stress. Instead, she advises determining what you can control and what you can’t — and then focusing on what you can do immediately, versus long-term. “Focus on what you can control and accept that, at this moment in time, there is a lot happening in the world that might be out of your control,” O’Neill said. “Consider how you can be on the side of change through volunteer opportunities.”
For example, the existence of the coronavirus itself is outside of human control, but the fact that many people are experiencing food insecurity during the pandemic is something human beings can control. You will not be able to help all people experiencing hunger obtain a sustainable food source today, but you can help your neighbor apply for SNAP benefits — and you can join a food justice organization to advocate for change in the long term.
While such big problems can make us feel hopeless, O’Neill says there’s actually a bright side to the turbulence. “Yes, the stakes are high,” she said, “But, historically, change happens during high-stakes moments.”
Pick Positive People
Community is integral to mental health — but it also matters what kind of community you have. Surrounding yourself with people who affirm and support you is even more important when there is so much going on in the news. That often means understanding when a political disagreement is simply a disagreement, versus when it indicates that someone in your life doesn’t respect your identity or experience.
“Denying someone’s existence, [their] lived experience, or ignoring the idea that systemic racism permeates society transcends political affiliation,” said O’Neill. “They are differences in philosophies related to basic human rights.” If someone in your life constantly undermines or delegitimizes your lived experience or identity under the guise of politics, it may be time to consider putting some boundaries up around this person as a form of self-care.
If, however, someone in your life simply has a different opinion than you, but you feel that they respect you, you can learn simple tactics to make political conversations with them more civil and engaging. “Focus on the issue at hand,” said O’Neill. “Avoid whataboutism or ad-hominem arguments.”
Instead of attacking that person’s integrity, suggests O’Neill, focus on explaining what a particular candidate or issue means for you personally.
Take Time to Turn Off
Achieving real change takes a long time, and we need to care for ourselves so that we can continue to engage with the issues we care about. “Change is not going to happen overnight,” said O’Neill. “Resiliency is important.”
Cultivating resilience begins with tending to your basic needs. We all need proper food, rest, shelter, and sleep. Tune into your body, and listen to what it’s telling you. Are you tired? Are you hungry? Are you feeling overwhelmed or like you’re at your limit? Give yourself basic love and care. If you’ve experienced police repression in protests, or worked in a high-stress setting, like a hospital, during the pandemic, you may have also endured some trauma. Caring for your basic needs is especially important as we process these difficult experiences.
If you’re very passionate about a cause, you may feel guilty taking time off or even taking normal amounts of rest. But self-care is good for you, and for the cause or movement you care about. When we’re tired, stressed out, hungry, or have unmet medical needs, we’re more likely to be overly reactive, to fight with our friends and loved ones, and to make decisions that may not feel wise or helpful in retrospect. When we give to ourselves, we can give to others.
We also deserve to relax and have fun beyond meeting our basic needs. As challenging as it may feel, take a day to turn your phone off and do an activity that you care about, with people who make you feel nourished.
Celebrate (and Mourn)
Being engaged in politics and activism is hard work! The journey to positive change is never-ending, so it’s important to take time to celebrate your victories, and to mourn your defeats.
If a candidate or cause you support has a setback or loses an election, take time to grieve. “When you put everything you have into supporting a candidate, the letdown of defeat is going to feel like a painful loss,” said O’Neill. “It’s okay to feel sad, to feel angry, to feel hopeless — it is okay to feel anything you feel about the loss!”
Whether your candidate wins or loses, whether the cause you’re giving your all to has a setback or leaps ahead, recognize your work and the work of the people in the fight with you. So much of the labor we do to create a better world — from knocking on doors to cooking food for meetings — goes unrecognized. So in the good times and the bad, take time to celebrate one of the best parts of the journey to social change: the friends you make along the way.