As if the stress of living with COVID-19 wasn’t enough for us to be dealing with, a pivotal election looms and our collective stress levels are through the roof. Election stress disorder is officially a thing: According to the American Psychological Association (APA), 68% of U.S. adults — that’s more than two-thirds — say this upcoming election is a significant source of stress in their lives, where last election, that number hovered at just over 50%. And 60% say the number of issues America faces is overwhelming to them.
“The outside world has crept into very intimate parts of our lives, so what normally is a matter of taste or distaste becomes a matter of how safe you feel and how you live your life, and whether you can go outside without a mask, and when your loved ones get ill,” Dr. David Spiegel, director of the Stanford Center on Stress and Health, told TODAY. “It affects our moods and the way our bodies react to stress. We tend to react to a lot of things that are happening in the world now as physical threats, because in some ways they are.”
Spiegel said this pervasive stress forces our bodies into “fight or flight mode,” like racing car engines that don’t go anywhere. “You're forcing muscles to contract, you’re elevating your levels of cortisol, which mobilizes glucose into the blood. Chronic stress without physical activity to kind of discharge it can lead to blood sugar dysregulation and push people into pre-diabetic kind of states because their blood sugar levels are higher much of the time.”
So how can we manage all of this inherent stress? Interestingly enough, some of the simple, everyday things we do provide seemingly innocuous opportunities to bring down stress levels — no spa required.
Do your nails
Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D., a neuropsychologist based in New York City and faculty at Columbia University, told TODAY that getting or giving yourself a manicure or pedicure is time spent focusing on yourself and your own needs, which, in turn, reduces stress. “Even if it may seem frivolous to ponder what nail polish color you want, taking this time allows you to be out of a negative headspace and do something that you actually have control over. When it comes to the election, each of us can only cast one vote, per candidate. With self-care, we have the power to choose what we would like to do and when. That feeling is empowering,” she said.
Fold your laundry (or clean something)
Spiegel said the physical immersion required of chores — coupled with the feeling of accomplishment of ticking something off of your domestic to-do list — gives you a sense of control over something in your immediate environment and thus can help alleviate stress.
Walk in nature
One easy way to bust the news cycle out of your brain is to take a walk outside. “Researchers compared the brain activity of healthy people after they walked for 90 minutes in either a natural setting or an urban one. They found that those who did a nature walk had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is active during rumination — defined as repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions,” said Hafeez. No wonder the Japanese see “forest bathing” as a form of self-care — one study showed it can bring down your blood pressure.
Make a list
Spiegel said making a list or outline of things that need doing can help you feel better because (unlike the election) it enables you to see a path to actually completing a task and have some control over the outcome.
Work out hard
Spiegel said vigorous movement can help you to work off some of that excess adrenaline and cortisol you’ve been carrying around. What’s more, an article published by Harvard Health says exercise stimulates your brain to produce endorphins, brain chemicals that elevate your mood.
Chewing gum doesn’t just make your breath better — it can relieve anxiety, improve alertness and reduce stress during episodes of multitasking, according to a 2016 study, Hafeez mentioned.
Watch a guilty pleasure show
Love spacing out to “Below Deck?” Hafeez said it can be “a great and much needed escape” to snap on and tune out to TV shows, especially those that don’t deal or reference current topics such as the pandemic or the election. She also recommended anything that reminds you of comforting times from your childhood — just stay away from anything violent or psychologically disturbing.
No wonder crafts are having a Renaissance — focusing on a repetitive task like knitting, needlepoint or stringing beads together can have almost a meditative effect, said Hafeez. Science backs up the benefits of knitting and crafting: A British study found knitting to have a therapeutic and positive effect on your wellbeing.
Take a shower or bath
And if all else fails, take a bath! The sensory experience of a nice, long hot shower or bath can relax your mind along with your muscles, said Hafeez.
As election stress intensifies, it’s good to know the little things we do every day can actually help us stay centered. “Anything that keeps both your mind and body occupied helps to alleviate stress and anxiety,” explained Hafeez. “When one is anxious, the worst thing to do is sit and wallow in it. When you do, the anxiety tends to escalate.” And the most important thing we can do to deescalate our collective stress? Vote.