This is the first time in my clinical career that I am living through the same experience as all of my clients universally. I look (through the computer screen) into their eyes without always feeling secure in my responses to them. They ask me how to manage their anxiety around what others aren’t doing to take this pandemic seriously. They ask how to alleviate the panic they feel intermittently when they look around the same room they’ve been in, and on the same couch they’ve been sitting on, since March. They ponder how they will cope as daylight hours shorten and meeting up with friends for picnics turn into walks in the bitter cold.
More recently, my clients of color question how much longer we will all survive if the current president is re-elected. Both figuratively and literally.
We are taught in our Masters programs that the use of self should be minimal in therapy sessions, that boundaries are to be firm, but the layers that 2020 brought to us are far too heavy to carry alone. Humanity and vulnerability have overshadowed the need to remain on the beaten path. My belief is that honesty is rarely, if ever, unnecessary. So I tell my clients, “I don’t know.” “I’m worried about that too.” “I’m scared for the winter too.”
I’m scared as hell for the election, probably in more ways than I’m even capable of expressing. Not only am I terrified for the results, but maybe more so how long it will take for the results to be confirmed. You see, this election will be different than any other that precedes it. We’ve adapted to facing either our dread or delight first thing Wednesday morning (at least this year). The results will be drawn out and complex. Experts predict that while we won’t be waiting for months, we could be waiting up to a week or longer.
And so I’m back to feeling how I described in the beginning — the topic of managing anxiety in the workplace after the election was pitched to me. The more I brainstormed my angle, the more I realized that I don’t know the right answer. Not only will the “results” of this election actually go on for possibly weeks, but my anxiety is high too. I’ve got four points that can be helpful if you let go and create space for them to be. The truth is that whether or not the results are revealed in a timely fashion, life will continue to go on. How can we adapt to resuming our work and our lives post-election?
Practice bringing awareness to where you feel tension in your body.
I like to do this in two ways, tools that I actually borrowed from general studies of mindfulness and meditation, as well as from a modality of therapy called trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TFCBT). TFCBT was created for children and adolescents, but the relaxation techniques take us back to basic skills that we may have lost touch with — controlled breathing and body scanning. Controlled breathing is great for relieving immediate physical symptoms of anxiety and grounding, and is a tool that you can use anywhere. Simply breathe in deeply through the nose until you can’t anymore, and exhale slowly through your mouth. Make your breathing intentional. It can help to place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly, and focus on your belly pulling in and expanding out. When you slow your breathing, you are allowing more oxygen to flow throughout your body, therefore steadying that racing heart or cooling off sweaty palms. Body scans aren’t so different than they sound — it involves paying attention to parts of the body and its sensations gradually from head to toe. You can do this by yourself by simply tensing and relaxing the various parts of your body, or you can find particular scripts here.
If you need time off + are able to use it, take it.
There’s no need to overcomplicate certain facets of life. Taking care of ourselves is one that we tend to overcomplicate through our relentless work ethics and odd hours. We are given paid time off (PTO) to use it. If you work at a place like the agency I work for, our PTO doesn’t roll over. For the amount of hours that the average American works a week, we deserve even more than the 4 or 5 weeks of PTO that we’re allotted. The election entangled with the year 2020 doesn’t even need to be explained when requesting the day off, or a day off a week after the election. Mental health is health. Period.
Look closer at the bigger picture.
Of course there is value in voting in the presidential election — if there wasn’t, there wouldn’t be so many tactics to suppress votes. However, there is significant value in voting in your local elections, the ones that aren’t covered as closely by major media outlets and consequently seem less important. Local elections matter to your immediate and surrounding communities, including your profession or grants for an agency you work for. They can determine funding for parks, schools, libraries, hospitals, nonprofit organizations, and more. They allocate tax dollars. By channeling more of our energy into local elections, we regain some of our power back. Our voices may be better heard and parts of our lives can improve through local governments.
Locus of control.
Outside of whatever spiritual or religious beliefs that you may hold, let’s assume that there are two forces that contribute to the events in our lives: internal forces and external forces. As the image illustrates, internal forces allow you to better manage what you think, feel, do, and engage with. External forces are those outside of ourselves that happen to us. Here’s a classic example: you’re driving to work and you get cut off by another driver. That driver is an external force, but how you choose to respond is an internal force. Are you going to cuss them out? Are you going to practice controlled breathing? Are you going to turn on some music and blow steam that way? When thinking about work after election day, when the fate of our country will be in limbo, channel your locus of control. What are important tasks that need to be completed each day? How can you refocus your perspective to maintain a positive attitude during the workday? In essence, what parts of work or your work day are in your control? Remember, what we think, feel, do and engage with are generally in our control. That’s a lot of power that can be put to good use, no matter how the results roll in on election night.