Want to survive post-election anxiety? Get some sleep!

Image: “Anxiety” © 2016 Azzah B.A. Licensed under CC-BY.

EDITORIAL || Tamara Kaye Sellman, Curator

No matter who you voted (or didn’t vote) for this last election, one thing’s certain: nobody’s happy about how things are going.

Either your candidate lost (which is the default cause for unhappiness), or your candidate won, but the backlash against the outcome has yet to subside, making it difficult to enjoy the win.

Agitation has become the rule, not the exception, from all sides of the spectrum. With many efforts underway to either confirm or nullify the results, it seems likely that nobody’s getting good sleep these days.

Why should 2016 be any different?

Anxiety over election outcomes isn’t new. However, for 2016, the stakes loomed much higher this year for many people, who were deeply invested in this election’s outcomes.

A first-ever woman candidate with a legitimate shot at the White House is historic and emotionally charged for many. A first-ever non-politician edging out a large field of (mostly) politicians is also historic and holds a new lens to the values and priorities of many Americans who feel they’ve been undervalued.

And all around the playing field, ongoing conflicts at home and abroad simmer on the back burner with few easy fixes, lots of dissatisfaction persists among voters in general, and the added manipulations of social media and technology breaches continue to stir concerns about Constitutional rights, posing an even bigger existential question,

“What is real anymore?”

Which is why a person normally dedicated to discussions about sleep health is taking on the subject of post-election anxiety.

I don’t have statistical data to support this assertion, but I suspect that untreated anxiety is a key reason why people have become sleep deprived these last four weeks; conversely, lack of quality, sufficient sleep caused by post-election trauma is creating anxiety disorders in people who were functional as well as good sleepers before this election cycle.

Fear has become a societal norm. Whether it lasts is for the analysts, pundits, and futurists to ponder.

But let’s not lose perspective: Millions of Americans were already sleep deprived before this election cycle began. How many more of us have joined those ranks since, finding ourselves seemingly disabled in our collective ability to think, perform, and cope on a daily basis? 

Sleep may be the very best solution we have for restoring ourselves as individuals and as citizens. Whether you want to flee to another country, march in the streets for the next six weeks, or try to achieve a sense of balance somewhere in the middle, you’re going to need your sleep to do it.

Sleep deprivation and anxiety: a marriage made in Hell

From the National Sleep Foundation:

It’s a frustrating routine: Your mind starts racing as soon as your head hits the pillow. You’re thinking about your to-do list, that thing you should (or shouldn’t) have said to your boss, or how expensive your child’s braces are going to be. Then you catch a glimpse of the clock, and realize how late it already is.

At some point it’s hard to tell whether you’re having trouble sleeping because you’re anxious, or you’re anxious because you can’t sleep. The answer may be both. It’s a two-way street: Stress and anxiety can cause sleeping problems, or worsen existing ones. But lack of sleep can also cause an anxiety disorder.

Scientific research has captured the bidirectional relationship between poor sleep and anxiety; this 2013 review of sleep disorders, anxiety, and depression uses longitudinal studies to illustrate these relationships.

People who are anxious tend not to get enough sleep, and the quality of the sleep they do get is not the best. They may miss out on critical REM sleep or deep delta-wave sleep, two stages which help the brain and the body to “course correct” during times of stress.

Further, chronic insomnia can result from the hypervigilance that is symptomatic of untreated anxiety, and insomnia has been shown to be a common trait marker for people most at risk for developing anxiety.

What’s the worst that could happen?

Suicidal ideation can occur if anxiety is allowed to spin out of control. It’s not ridiculous to suggest that post-election anxiety has had a hand in the sense of hopelessness and despair that some voters have felt since November 8. Suicide hotlines and services (such as these in the state of Texas) have been extraordinarily busy these last few weeks.

For some, it’s ended with a trip to the psych ward, while for others, it’s resulted in less acute, though by no means less serious, displays of anxiety, such as Facebook confessions of openly weeping while at work, or statistics showing anxious eating’s unfortunate outcome: unhealthy weight gain.

While statistics aren’t available to gauge whether the uptick in crisis calls is directly correlated to the outcome of the election, it seems fair to say that anxiety about the results, as well as fears about the future, have probably led to increases in mood imbalances and insomnia, both which can lead to an inevitable cycle of renewed and sustained anxiety.

College students, many who were first-time voters in 2016, are feeling especially anxious. Already considered one of the most sleep-deprived populations, they may be even more burdened by post-election upheaval, amplifying the anxiety they already face with midterm exams, job statistics, student loans, uncertain employment futures, and increasingly unsafe campuses.

And chaos wrought by politics no longer begins and ends with adults. It’s now affecting our children’s ability to function and sleep well, which may truly be the first time this has happened following a presidential election.

Tips for shaking off the doom and gloom

The following tips are not recommendations to “get over it,” whatever “it” might mean for you. Nor is it an attempt to deny the sense of urgency and immediacy of current political upheaval in our nation’s capital.

This advice is actually meant as a treatise of finding balance, strength, and focus so you can keep moving forward with whatever goals you may have for surviving what surely promises to be challenging times for everyone. Sleep must become a bigger priority if any of us are to move forward and face the challenges of 2017.

What I’m pitching is hardly a revolutionary idea.

  • Professional athletes prioritize sleep because it recharges them, heals injuries, improves focus, and improves their performance.
  • Military organizations are discovering how critical quality sleep is for troops abroad, both in combat and in recovery after service.
  • Even corporate America has acknowledged the high costs of sleep deprivation (see the Washington Post‘s “Commentary: Americans don’t sleep enough, and it’s costing us billions,” reprinted here in the Chicago Tribune).

It’s time for us to acknowledge that “we the people” have a serious sleep problem in this country. Once we can admit it, the road to better sleep becomes paved with some pretty reasonable advice.

Create personal boundaries in social media

It is patently lazy to cast the blame for our post-election anxiety on the dynamics of social media activity such as what has now been exposed as a rampant “fake news” cycle that has poisoned the Facebook algorithm.

Nor can we sit inside the pool of vitriol that is the Twitter feed or the Reddit discussion (or, really, any ugly encounter masquerading as engagement in any social media channel) and expect it not to leave a mark.

What we can do is hold ourselves to higher standards when it comes to media literacy. We can also take social media vacations (or at least a day off, now and again) to reacquaint ourselves with real people in the real world with real challenges and real victories.

We can also be more selective about who we want to engage with in social media.

If you imagine, for instance, that your Facebook wall is the digital equivalent of the front porch to your house, then it’s not so difficult to imagine that there are tons of perfect strangers you would not wish to come knocking on your door in real life. You would expect to know something about them before you invited them in, right?

And if they were to ring your bell mercilessly at all hours of the day and night, or vandalize your front door with graffiti, or call menacing things to you from their idling car, you would certainly not think of these people as your friends. You would, instead, be taking action.

Take action with your digital front porches. Unfriending and unfollowing are really poor words to describe what is actually setting healthy and safe boundaries for yourself.

I subscribe to the edict, #MyWallMyRules, and recommend that you do, too. As Stanford’s Rosan Gomperts, LCSW said in a recent BeWell@Stanford interview,

“People who avoid these media and social media sources (and associated triggers) may be worried that they are putting their ‘heads in the sand’—but it is more important, upon feeling disturbed by an event, to first regulate what one has taken in until one regains balance and perspective.”

About finding perspective

As Dr. James Gordon rightly asserts in the article, “Moving Beyond Electoral Trauma“:

An election is, of course, not a war, an earthquake, or a life threatening disease…

As the founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, he’s worked for decades with people suffering from emotional trauma and post-traumatic stress, so his comment is not meant to slight the very real feelings that accompany such a dramatic, nationally felt moment in our collective history.

Instead, he suggests that the model of self-care and group support that he and his team have used for people to psychically survive the wounds of conflict, natural disaster, or terminal disease are equally relevant for all of us in this moment.

These approaches allow those suffering from what Forbes magazine coined “election stress disorder” to reclaim a kind of mind-body balance in what he describes as “ugly political combat, and its unsettling aftermath.”

Dr. Gordon and his peers, based on field experience and observation, suggest that it is this aftermath which—as discomfiting as it may be—creates opportunities for all of us to:

  • reduce anxiety and agitation
  • relax bodies tensed against danger
  • help people gain perspective on what has happened and may happen

Find ways to reach out

People seem to fall into two extremes: They either bury themselves in work to stave off the chaos of the outside world, or they struggle to function at work because they feel the chaos of the outside world has pulled them underwater.

In both cases, reaching out can be a healing response that can positively shape the future.

This could be traditional, such as a trip to a psychologist for some advice, or to a support group to share fears and struggles among people who understand you. It could also be casual: more coffee dates with friends, or getting a new pet.

There are ways to safely sit inside the fears you carry with you from day to day until you can find ways to overcome them. Contemplation, reflection, even just speaking one’s anxiety out loud can do much to alleviate post-election gloom.

For some, contemplation and reflection may not be the problem, but a sense of helplessness. There may be so many fears to face that they become frozen in their ability to do anything about them.

Joining an organization that fosters the values you believe in, which is actively engaged in a political goal you can get behind, might be a better solution. Raising money for causes is proactive. So is gathering with like-minded others and march in public. Activism, whether it’s grassroots or on the mall in Washington, matters.

You can also find ways to be vigilant about your political values through your work.

  • Teachers have some golden opportunities to amp up their lesson plans using real-world events to teach media literacy, debate tactics, Constitutional law, and the basics of legislation and elections.
  • Public servants can encourage civil discourse, a better understanding of civics, and promote unity through community activism.
  • Artists can shape their experiences into moving performance or works of art to inspire hope or motivation in others.
  • Even parents can carefully and thoughtfully empower their children by teaching them best practices for listening to dissent and respectfully dealing with people that don’t agree with them.

Still, this is all easier said than done. Sarah Seltzer’s Flavorwire editorial rightly asks, “How Do We Comfort Ourselves When Staying Vigilant (and Anxious) Feels Like The Only Responsible Option?

Learn how to relax

Some of these suggestions are comically simple and free. Take a walk (in the morning if it’s sunny, or under an umbrella of shining stars at night, or during a gentle snowfall). Build a fire in your fireplace or stove. Sing your favorite songs in the shower or the car. Listen to stand-up comedy on Pandora. Read a good book. Practice breathing. Stretch your arms and legs. Bake.

There are services, such as massage, and products like aromatherapy, to take off the edge of real life. Meditation is a practice that seems to be growing among the mainstream; use a popular app like Headspace to get into a mindfulness groove for just 10 minutes a day. You might even find some value in listening to bedtime stories for adults.

It’s rather eerie that a list of 23 Things to Do to Improve your Mental Health in 2016 from BuzzFeed last December seems better equipped to serve as a template for this year’s New Year’s self-care resolutions as we crawl, pale and trembling, into the next year.

(I am happy to report that “Get more sleep” landed at number 14 on that list, though, of course, SleepyHeadCENTRAL would push that goal to the top of the list. Meanwhile, “Do more things that make you a little anxious,” slated at number 21, may not be something we need to work at right now, though the benefits of doing this make logical sense.)

Finally, the ultimate advice: Get some sleep!

It’s really as simple as that. But it can’t happen unless you make it a priority. Here’s how to achieve better sleep.

Practice good sleep hygiene

We have discussed many ways to improve sleep hygiene, which is defined as the practices we put into place to ensure we can and do sleep well.

This means sticking to a healthy sleep schedule, putting away electronic screens at night to avoid shifting the circadian system, choosing a clean and comfortable environment that’s conducive to sleep, following bedtime rituals, being thoughtful about medications and substances of any kind, and so much more.

Take it outside

Fresh air, natural beauty, the sensory stimuli of the physical world are something lost to us when we spend so much time in digital engagement. Re-engage with yourself by finding solace at the park, the beach, the woods, the snow, the farm, the garden. David Sax writes in The Guardian that:

Not so long ago, the internet was a reliable escape from the harsh reality of the world. Today, it is the reality we need to escape from. Like many others, I am seeking comfort away from the screen. The only things that seem to make any sense, and to lighten the darkness, are those precious moments offline.

Daily communing (or commuting!) with nature not only helps us maintain perspective, it also keeps our circadian rhythms entrained properly. When our rhythms are right, it is much easier to find quality sleep.

Keep moving

You can achieve relief for both anxiety and poor sleep by increasing the amount of time you spend in physical activity. It doesn’t need to be marathon training; short brisk walks, yoga, swimming, golf, gardening, and housework all count as active movement that can help you work off tension and improve the odds you’ll fall asleep later that night.

Ultimately, how any one of us manages anxiety is going to be a unique process that depends on whether we have a support system we can turn to, how resilient we are as individuals, and what kinds of skills and tools we already have at hand for managing fear and uncertainty.

I think Sarah Seltzer captures the challenge of seeing the Big Picture best:

…when the day’s phone banking is done, when we’ve read the articles that describe the erosion of this regulation or that norm, how do we unwind and comfort ourselves, without total escape and disassociation from reality? …

What we need is a form of self-care divorced from self-absorption. We have to consider the things that make us feel glad to be alive and (relatively) free as if they are tools—not for the fight, but for the fighters.

If life is now a pitched battle for the future, self-care is the commissary. Whether through family or art or the outdoors or moving our bodies or nourishing ourselves, we have an obligation to visit whatever oasis gives us strength—but we just can’t stay there.

The one thing we can all make a priority of in the days and weeks ahead is sleep. Sleep can lend its healing hand to mood disorders, health problems, and fatigue. It can also keep us functional at work, in our roles as parents, and even while we are doing our usual, customary tasks, like driving or making buying decisions.

(Both can result in disaster without adequate sleep… seeDrivers Beware: Crash Rate Spikes With Every Hour Of Lost Sleep” and “15 Examples Of Regrettable Late-Night Shopping, Plus Trends Found In Shopping Carts.”)

Please, if you do nothing else, make a plan to go to bed at the same time every night, and rise at the same time every day. Even this simple act of resetting your circadian rhythms can do wonders for your outlook and your sense of purpose.

Once you get back into a groove, the recharge alone will help you build up and maintain the stamina you need to move forward.

Sources consulted:
Arizona Daily Sun, 12.4.16
Biological Psychology, 2.1983
Business Insider, 8.31.16
Business Wire, 12.6.16
BuzzFeedNews, 12.28.15
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2.18.16
Chicago Tribune, 11.30.16
Education Week, 11.22.16
Flavorwire, 11.30.16
Forbes, 11.16.16
The Guardian, 12.4.16
Houston Press, 11.23.16
Huffington Post || US Edition, 11.29.16
The Independent, 10.17.16
Medical Daily, 11.28.16
National Public Radio || The Salt, 11.18.16
National Public Radio || Shots, 12.6.16
The National Sleep Foundation, 11.9.16
The New Yorker, 11.18.16
Psychology Today, 11.28.16
SFGate, 11.25.16
SLEEP, 7.2007
SLEEP, 7.2013
Sleep Medicine Reviews, 12.1997
USA TODAY || College, 12.4.16
About Tamara Kaye Sellman (621 Articles)

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