How are you feeling about the US presidential election next week?
Many of my clients (even those outside of the US!) are struggling with anxiety and fear about what might happen on November 3rd, or after.
And it’s no surprise, right? Our brains are wired to fixate on anything they perceive as a “threat” until that threat is either realized or neutralized.
So how do you wrangle your brain when it seems there is a HUGE unknown elephant (or donkey) in the room that will impact every facet of your life?
The first thing to understand about election anxiety is that we are not actually afraid of the outcome of the election.
That may be hard to believe, but it’s true.
The winner of the presidential election is a neutral circumstance.
Meaning, their inauguration doesn’t MAKE you feel anything until you have a thought about it.
No matter WHAT the election outcome, some people will have thoughts like “YES! My candidate won!” while others will have thoughts like “This is a disaster for the world” and anywhere in between.
The circumstance of the election does not make us feel one way or another.
It’s always our THOUGHTS that cause our feelings.
There are people who get a stage 3 cancer diagnosis and assume it will all work out fine. There are people who have intense fear and anxiety about finding out they have a few pre-cancerous cells, or even suspecting they might when they really don’t at all.
If our election fear isn’t about the actual circumstance of who wins the election, what IS it about?
It’s about what we are making that outcome MEAN in our minds.
It’s about the story we are telling ourselves about what one person being elected will mean for us, for the country, for our community, children, the environment, etc.
Each of our stories is slightly different – so as a first step, I recommend locating and identifying what you are making the election outcome mean.
What are the sentences in your mind about what will happen if one person is elected vs another person?
Once you’ve gotten to know your story, it’s helpful to remind yourself that no matter the outcome, we are always afraid of how we are going to FEEL in the future.
And what creates our feelings?
Not what happens.
Not the circumstances of the future.
But our THOUGHTS about the future.
I know this well, because I experienced it this time four years ago.
I’m Jewish, and when you learn about the Holocaust growing up, one of the things you are told over and over is that there were people who saw what was coming and left, and they survived. And the people who stayed and didn’t think it would get that bad, died.
So when Trump won in 2016, I became fixated on the idea that with white nationalists in the White House it was possible that Jews would be rounded up in the US and I would not know when to leave the country to keep myself safe.
So my brain saw what it thought was a real danger now that there were Nazi sympathizers in power – that Jews were going to end up in concentration camps – and it became fixated on how to keep me safe by “knowing” when that would happen and leaving before I was in danger.
Now, obviously, thinking I can control the future is always an illusion. Anything could happen at any time. I could predict genocide and leave and then be hit by a car in the next country.
But what was REALLY going on is that I was afraid of being afraid in the future. I was imagining a future in which I was put in a concentration camp and lived in a constant state of terror and despair.
One of my greatest thought work heroes is Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning. In it, he says “The last freedom left to [hu]man is the freedom to choose his own attitude in any set of circumstances.”
I thought I was afraid of suffering, or of death. But on closer examination, my real fear was that someone might take away my ability to decide how I wanted to think and feel, how I wanted to view the world.
Losing that freedom is what’s so terrifying when we are afraid of the future.
We’re afraid that we will SUFFER, and that we will have no say in our suffering. That is what makes us feel powerless.
But we always have a say in how we respond to our suffering.
We always have a say in how we respond to any set of circumstances.
Nobody and no circumstance can take that away from you.
When you remember that, you no longer have to live in fear of the future.
When you remember that, you can take action to shape the world from hope and commitment, rather than fear, knowing that you can show up to meet whatever circumstances come with dignity, hope, and determination – all of which are created by your mind.