Nia Wassink doesn’t know what Wednesday will hold for the nation after a presidential election that people have awaited with equal parts anticipation and dread. But the nonprofit consultant knows what Wednesday will hold for her: A trip to the therapist’s office.
Wassink, who lives in Longmont, is one of many Coloradans with a self-care plan for election night and its aftermath. People report taking time off work, scheduling haircuts and hikes, or otherwise prioritizing their mental health in a way once atypical for even the most intense political seasons.
“I felt like I was shell shocked for days after last time,” Wassink said, referring to the 2016 election when polls consistently showed Hillary Clinton with a comfortable lead over Donald Trump. “I could barely get out of bed. That morning, I had my white pantsuit on (thinking) we’re going to elect the first woman president. Then the worst possible thing happened.”
What she learned is that “nothing is certain. Just be ready to take care of yourself.”
The 2016 election was a significant source of tension for many Americans, and 2020 is proving to be even more trying. Some 68% of U.S. adults are seriously stressed by this election, according to an American Psychiatric Association survey, up from 52% four years ago. Numbers are higher among certain groups, such as Black citizens and people with chronic health conditions. The electorate’s rising anxiety caused the APA to coin a new diagnosis: Election Stress Disorder.
There’s plenty to stress about in Colorado, where the ballot had more than 20 candidates for president/vice president, multiple tax measures, initiatives ranging from the reintroduction of wolves to a ban on abortions at 22 weeks, and a challenge to Cory Gardner’s U.S. Senate seat by former governor John Hickenlooper.
Uncertainty is driving much of the agita. “Humans in general don’t do well with the unknown,” said Kendra Miguez, psychotherapist and founder/owner of Colorado Women’s Center. “Any lack of certainty, it doesn’t feel safe.”
Miguez said there has been a notable increase in new and returning patients seeking mental health care at the Center’s locations in Boulder, Broomfield and Longmont as Nov. 3 drew near. Her staff is preparing for a post-election bump in business as well.
Combine political woes with a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and many people find themselves in something of a mental health maelstrom. “It’s really hard right now for people,” Miguez said.
COVID-19 and the resulting economic devastation — not the election — are driving clients to Andrew Rose’s practice. He co-owns Boulder-based Step Into Counseling with his wife, also a therapist. Patient intakes have been trending upward since April, with big jumps in August and October, he said.
Even though the economy and health crisis might be bringing clients in, the election is on their minds, too.
“Reading case notes, I see basically everyone is worried or anxious about the electoral results,” Rose wrote in response to emailed questions.
Mental health professionals recommend doing things that bring joy to distract from feelings of doom or gloom. Exercise, listen to music, bake, color — “whatever you can do to ground yourself,” Miguez said.
Social connection is crucial: reach out to a friend or loved one — or even a therapist — to talk over how you feel, Miguez suggested. If you feel like crap, don’t fight it.
“It’s OK to not be OK right now. It’s OK for us to feel this state of chaos. Sometimes we can’t fix it,” Miguez said. “We can just acknowledge it.”
A certain amount of detachment from the current reality is necessary. “Avoid dwelling on things you can’t control,” the APA wrote in its release of survey results.
Miguez recommends against doomscrolling on social media or obsessively watching the results Tuesday night or thereafter, if the presidential race is too close to call as some are predicting. Although she acknowledges that “many people aren’t going to be able to help it.”
Katie Macarelli, a marketing professional who lives in Golden, is heeding that advice. Her Tuesday night plans include copious amounts of candy corn and playing her ukulele. Wednesday, she’s treating herself to a professional haircut, which she uses as a time for quiet reflection.
“It epitomizes peace, for me, and escape,” Macarelli said. “The stylist knows I don’t like to talk to anybody. I really like that idea of going in to sit and having somebody snip it all away.”
Wassink’s election night activities will also involve comfort food: a rib roast and fresh-baked bread for her and her firefighter husband “so we can eat our feelings all night.” They’ll be tuned into election coverage — local, state and national — for “as long as we can stand it.”
Bryan DeBusk, also of Longmont, will be glued to various screens. He wouldn’t commit to a days-long vigil, but said he would stay tuned in if results appear imminent overnight.
“I’ll watch until 5 a.m. if it takes that long.”
DeBusk, a grant writer, took three days of post-election vacation. (He worked Monday; his company gives workers Election Day off.)
“Last time around, I was not able to concentrate on work,” DeBusk said. “I was concerned about all those questions of what comes next.”
After Trump was elected, he and his wife threw themselves into political organizing, something they’d meant to do before the 2016 election but never got around to.
“I think like everyone else, it felt inevitable that he would lose and Hilary would win,” DeBusk said. “We didn’t do as much as we could have.”
This time around, “we protested, we talked to people,” donated, voted, encouraged others to vote, he said. “I want my kids to know that, for the last four years, we’ve done everything we think we can.”
His post-election plan is less involved, heavily dependent on what happens Tuesday.
“I expect I’ll do some hiking, whichever way things go,” DeBusk said. “I’m hopeful that’s a great celebration… or it could be mourning.”
Shay Castle is a Boulder-based journalist and owner of Boulder Beat News, a digital outlet covering local government and related issues. Her work has appeared in Denver Post and New York Times.