mental health

A Post-Election Action Plan for Anxious People

Photo: Adam Kuylenstierna/EyeEm/Getty Images

These next few years are a long damned haul, and it’s hard to face that when you have an anxiety disorder. I do, and it’s knocked me flat from time to time over the past few weeks. I wake up in heart-knocking horror in the middle of the night, feel the sting of acid creeping up into my chest, or squirm at my desk with my back muscles twitching because I’ve been hunched down for hours, unconsciously waiting for impact. Several friends have ended up in the ER with panic attacks, convinced they were dying. They weren’t — just their hopes, dreams, and faith in the decency of their fellow man.

The worst happened. More will happen. All the magical thinking and proactive worrying in the world didn’t prevent the outcome of this election, and letting it attack me from the inside is not a viable solution, not if I want to spend the next few years anywhere other than under my increasingly pilling comforter. So I’ve come up with a coping plan. Maybe it’ll help you, too.

Set a stretch alarm. When I’m in a panic spiral, I’ll find myself in sharp, shocking pain, then realize I’ve been gnarled up in startle position for several hours. Before the election, it got so bad that I set a reminder on my calendar to stand up and breathe deeply a few times a day. It’s painfully easy to forget to do, and the simple (and totally free!) act of drawing in breath can knock me out of a terrible thought loop and help me move forward with purpose.

See friends in person whether you feel up to it or not. A pal who made it through Katrina gathered some of us around a table recently for Monday-night red beans and rice. This, he told us, was therapy. He was right. It’s easy to duck phone calls and texts and project whatever you care to online. In person, it’s easier to ask — or be asked — “Are you okay?” and get or give an honest answer. Just be prepared to really listen or open up if the answer is “No.”

Also, don’t see people you don’t want to. Yup, it’s incredibly important to speak with people who have opposing views and do your best to put a human face on the terrible decisions they have made, but some people are a brick wall or worse. Save your energy for people who need extra care.

Step away from the internet. In the same way that you cannot control the car with the invisible passenger’s-side brake, constant vigilance — like refreshing Twitter, Facebook, and the popular-vote count deep into the night — does not actually affect what’s going on in the real world. If you step away from your phone or keyboard for a moment, the republic will not crash. It’s already upside-down in a goddamned ditch. Some people are trying to right it, some are fist-pumping as it spins its wheels. You can walk away for a while (outside even), leave your phone at home (I KNOW!), read a book, see a movie, pet a dog’s belly. The car will still be there when you get back, but you’ll be in much better shape to do the heavy lifting.

Get some sleep. I have a terrible habit of avoiding going to bed because I’m afraid I will just lay there obsessing and get my usual four-and-a-half hours. But I’ve found that if I can envision waking up calm and refreshed as I’m trying to fall asleep, I am much more likely to feel that way in the morning — as opposed to hallucinating Rudy Giuliani popping out of my closet and smothering me with a pillow.

Take meds if you need them. There is no shame in starting medication to get you through the next while — and it might be a good idea to ask your prescriber if you can stock up with a few months’ worth just in case something goes awry with your health care after, say, January 20. If you’re a non-meds-taking masochist who likes to emotionally raw-dog it (like me!) or can’t afford to see a doctor, here’s a tip from mine: L-Theanine, an amino acid derived from tea leaves, has been referred to as nature’s Xanax, and you can get it at Whole Foods, Amazon, and hippie stores. I swear by it to sand the sharp edges from panic attacks.

Pick one cause. You cannot go on every single protest march, make every call, sign every petition, sway every politician. Commit to selecting one cause and making it your big mission, or finding one little thing to do every day. A letter or phone call to a legislator, an hour volunteering, a couple of bucks to a cause, or a check-in on a friend living in a place where they may not feel safe. It might feel small. It will keep you sane.

Kat Kinsman is the author of Hi, Anxiety, which came out this month.

A Post-Election Action Plan for Anxious People