The election is fast-approaching, which can naturally cause anxiety given the uncertainty it brings. Take a moment and ask yourself, how am I doing? On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your anxiety level in the past few weeks? For many, that number is higher than they’d like it to be, and it’s understandable. We’re living in an unpredictable time, and with that comes fear. We’re also living amidst a lot of tragedy, which can result in trauma and grieving. Wherever your feelings are coming from, they are valid, and you are not alone. You are not alone in feeling anxious, and you are not alone if you want to drink. The good news is you don’t have to. By learning about why this anxiety exists, we can practice ways to manage it without alcohol.
Why you’re feeling anxious and want to drink
The collateral damage from the pandemic has had severe implications for people’s mental health. Alcohol use has increased significantly since the start of the pandemic because healthy and familiar coping mechanisms no longer feel sufficient or accessible.
Election-related anxiety can have a similar effect: we’re left feeling helpless, and our healthy coping mechanisms don’t seem to do the trick for this unique brand of stress.
Let’s break it down physiologically. When anxious thoughts occur, they trigger a gland inside the brain called the hypothalamus. This is known as the “fight or flight” gland. If you have ever watched a horror movie, you may have noticed yourself getting nervous about the person in the film. That’s because the hypothalamus can’t tell if you are in the film or watching it. Your hypothalamus cannot discern reality and perceived reality. In turn, our bodies release adrenaline and trigger a stress response. It’s completely normal to feel the urge to drink to self-soothe the stress. However, if you continue to drink to cope with stress, the hypothalamus gland ‘learns’ that you need alcohol to manage stress, which creates dependency. And then it feels even harder to manage stress without it.
Similar to that movie, real-life election suspense, and the possibility of what’s on the other side, can create anxiety that feels inescapable. It can be tempting to fall into the cycle of alcohol dependency and escapism, but there are healthier coping mechanisms that will help you keep that anxiety at bay.
How to manage election-related stress
In the case of pre-election anxiety, limiting political media consumption can be incredibly effective for calming our fight-or-flight instincts that could lead to a drink. And I know, turn off the TV may seem like an obvious answer. Here are five alternatives.
1. Give yourself a boundary.
Media is everywhere, and it can be hard to make a clean break and delete your Twitter account or unplug your cable box. Sometimes, the most efficient method for conquering habits (whatever they may be), is to set realistic boundaries for yourself. For example, I can only watch the news with a friend/partner or I can only go on such-and-such website one day per week. You have the power to flip the channel, even for an evening, and you don’t have to do it alone. This can help you create a balance between staying informed, and managing the stress that can come along with it.
2. Find engaging content alternatives to balance your schedule.
After you’ve set your boundaries, find healthier alternatives. For example, if you’ve decided to only watch the news when with your partner, you can seek out entertainment content in your free time. Binge-watching something other than political media — ideally, fictional television can be a feel-good alternative to the news (and doesn’t leave you with an emotional hangover). Options like cooking shows can also inspire offline activities — like preparing a new meal — and create a productive distraction.
And if you’re feeling the urge to drink, you can always join a virtual therapist-moderated support group or sign up for alcohol therapy with a therapist specialized in helping people change their relationship with alcohol. As a moderator, I’m always impressed and inspired by the supportive environment, and actionable tips shared by our members.
3. Shake and stir an alcohol-free beverage.
Say you do keep the news on — that is completely understandable. The next step here is to detach election content consumption from the ritual of alcohol consumption. When you’re craving a drink, consider reaching for an alcohol-free cocktail instead. The brain can identify the alcohol alternative as comparable reinforcement, without the potentially harmful outcomes of drinking alcohol.
4. Focus on what you can control.
If you keep the news on and are still feeling anxious, it can be helpful to channel that energy into action. Taking service-oriented action is a great way to fill time with non-alcohol-related activity, and replace those feelings of helplessness with feelings of productivity. Make sure you’re registered to vote. Encourage others to do so. Make calls, share information, or volunteer. Combating fear of the intangible with tangible action can serve both you and your community.
5. Try, right now, to take one deep breath, and exhale.
Breathe in again through the mouth for eight seconds, hold it for four seconds, and exhale again — through the nose — for eight seconds.
An anxiety cycle can quite literally be interrupted by breathing. Oxygen dilutes the number of neurotransmitters in the prefrontal cortex, where anxiety dwells. The reduction of neurotransmitters sends a message over to the hypothalamus: You are not in danger right now. This reset can create the clarity you need to focus on self-care and take steps forward.
Of course, elections significantly impact our lives — as both individuals and as a society at large. You have every right to feel anxious, particularly in the context of our current political climate. Whatever you are feeling is valid.
I hope the above tips are helpful in interrupting cycles of anxiety and focusing on what’s in your control. You can do this!