But now, most states have finished counting votes — at least once — and Biden has been named president-elect. So it’s time, mental health experts say, to reset and start thinking about life post-election, which will not be without stressors, as legal fights and more political disruption are anticipated in the coming months.
“Unfortunately, I think we’ve worn ourselves out, and we were already worn out,” said Cynthia Ackrill, a stress expert and lifestyle coach in Asheville, N.C. “We all know to reboot our phones and our computers when they start getting funky, but we don’t really pay attention to our brains.”
She and other experts offer the following tips for detoxing from the election in a way that allows you to stay informed while still giving your brain a much-needed break.
Don't think of an election detox as a total purge
When faced with overwhelming stress, it’s common to want to shut down, disconnect and “bury your head in the sand,” said Thea Gallagher, clinic director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety.
“Resist that urge to completely rid yourself of uncomfortable content,” said Gallagher, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the university’s Perelman School of Medicine. “We have to engage with difficult content, especially now.”
What if, for instance, you give up just one news source to start?
“Would that feel different?” Ackrill said. “Play with it, experiment and think of it in terms of energy in a nonjudgmental, compassionate way with yourself. You’re getting curious and exploring what is going to make you feel more resilient at the end of the week.”
Take stock of your existing habits
Altering these habits can be like “breaking any other addiction or doing any other kind of big behavioral change, which you know is going to be challenging,” said Jonathan Horowitz, a clinical psychologist and founder of the San Francisco Stress and Anxiety Center. “The first thing you want to do is take a step back and examine your current relationship with that thing that’s potentially problematic.”
Ackrill suggested organizing your habits into lists. One, she said, should be behaviors that make you feel energized in a positive way, such as making time to talk to a friend, going outside or having a nutritious snack. The other should consist of the habits you want to eliminate: trying to mentally push through a task instead of taking a break, rereading or revisiting things that are upsetting or staying up too late.
Reevaluate how you approach, consume media
Most people were already spending too much time glued to the news or social media, a habit only exacerbated by the dramatic election season.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to go cold turkey, because the way the anxiety works, you just worry about what might be happening,” said Steven Stosny, a relationship expert in Maryland’s North Potomac area, who coined the term “election stress disorder” in 2016. “What I suggest instead is limit your checking of the news to two or three times per day at the same time every day. If it becomes a routine, then it’s not as anxiety-provoking.”
Experts also suggest limiting your news sources and what you’re exposed to online.
While watching the news, people should practice “real conscious viewing,” said Nancy Mramor, a health and media psychologist and author of “Get Reel: Produce Your Own Life.”
“Conscious means if you’re watching someone or something, be attuned to whether it’s upsetting you, and if it’s upsetting you, stop watching it,” Mramor said.
She also encouraged people to clean out their email inboxes and social media accounts.
“Unsubscribe to everything except maybe one or two publications that you trust to give you genuine, truthful headlines and synopsis,” she said. “Get rid of all of the organizations that have been constantly pressing you for donations or pushing you to vote. Shut all that down.”
On social media, remove any accounts that are “politically based,” Mramor said, noting: “You can’t really trust the accuracy of social media politics.”
“If I get any political posts on my Facebook page, I hide them immediately,” she said.
Horowitz agreed. “I definitely prefer the Marie Kondo approach,” he said, referring to the celebrity decluttering expert, “which is, like, try to do it in a big way all at once, and be intentional about it and be sort of ruthless about it.”
Beyond unfollowing or unfriending, you can mute people and accounts, Horowitz said. On Twitter, you can also mute words, phrases or hashtags.
“If you spend an hour a day online, that’s 365 hours that year that you could have been doing God knows what with that time that would have been really more productive,” he said.
Focus on personal relationships
Many relationships have been strained by this election and the increasingly polarizing rhetoric surrounding it. But experts emphasized the importance of attempting to maintain meaningful connections with close friends and family members whose positive effects on your life may be more important in the long run than politics.
“I’m not saying ignore politics; just put it into perspective,” Stosny said. “On your deathbed, you’re not going to regret who wins this election or loses. What you will regret is not being compassionate and kind enough to the people you love — and you’re not being as compassionate and kind to them if you’re obsessing about the election.”
Before engaging with loved ones you disagree with, it is critical to feel like you have the emotional strength and stability to handle the difficult conversations, said Akua K. Boateng, a licensed psychotherapist in Philadelphia.
First, Boateng said to try finding common ground as you consider reconciliation. Another idea, she said, is setting boundaries that create “safety and emotional security.”
“When a relationship goes from being a space of safety, a space of actually relating on common goals, beliefs and values . . . to a place where it’s toxic,” she said, you know you need boundaries.
You might spend less time with that person, or share less with them about what is happening in your life, Boateng said.
Gallagher recommended steering conversations away from potentially inflammatory subjects such as politics. “There’s other things that we have talked about with our family and friends that haven’t been covid and the election,” she said, adding that you should try to “find the places, the things that you do connect on.”
But if those boundaries are not respected, Boateng said, then “engagement on a day-to-day basis may need to change drastically.”
Even if the relationship is with a parent, she added, “if that sense of trust is not present, your relationship doesn’t have its main bloodlines.”
Channel anxious energy into productive activities
Anxiety, Stosny said, can give people a slight adrenaline boost, which he refers to as “a free Starbucks.”
Use the energy on a creative project, he suggested, or try to solve a problem in your life that you have control over.
Simple self-care practices can be easily integrated into your daily routine, said Richard Davidson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, noting that you can listen to a guided audio practice while you’re doing chores.
“You literally don’t need to take a single extra minute out of your day,” said Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry.
Another option is to get involved in activism, experts said.
“Then, when you’re feeling anxious, you know that you are doing what you can,” Horowitz said. “And you don’t have to do as much as you think you need to. You don’t need to go off and be a crusader necessarily to feel less anxious and feel like you’re making a difference.”
But Horowitz said not to make drastic lifestyle changes. With exercise, he recommended modifying your routine by only 5 percent to 10 percent to start.
“A lot of people bite off more than they can chew when they’re trying to attempt self-improvement and behavior change,” he said.
In the meantime, put together a list of things you enjoy doing, Horowitz said.
“Hopefully, we all have things to make us happy,” he said. “We tend to neglect those things when we’re in times of stress, because our mind tells us that we need to be attending to whatever the threatening, stressful thing is, but a lot of times, we’d be better off just spending more emotional energy making ourselves happy, because we can actually change a lot of those things.”