With the election rapidly approaching, Taylor Bass knew she had to craft a plan — not a plan for voting, which she will do on November 3, but for taking care of herself in the lead-up to a night where anything could happen.
“I’m in grad school to become a therapist,” said Bass, a 22-year-old master’s student at Washington University in St. Louis. “My education, alongside conversations with other people, motivated me to put together a plan to take care of myself.”
Like most Americans, Bass isn’t sure what to expect, since the presidential election results might not even be called that evening. A podcast she listens to, Therapy for Black Girls, inspired her to consider journaling throughout the high-stress event, in addition to limiting her social media intake and setting personal boundaries for the days and weeks after. Bass’s self-care plan involves a lot of “disengaging” from social media and the news, since the frenzied wall-to-wall coverage tends to overwhelm her.
“I have a class on the Wednesday after, and I’m already planning to leave during the second hour, which was dedicated to discussing the results, since I know I don’t want to do that with 30 other people in the room,” she told me.
Americans have been bombarded for months with reminders to establish a voting plan. But with Election Day around the corner, many who’ve already cast their ballots are shifting their civic priorities toward their own self-care and mental health.
In recent years, the commodification of self-care has stripped the term of much of its medical history and politicized usage, which has been particularly popular among women, queer people, and people of color. The Black feminist writer Audre Lorde wrote in her 1988 book of essays, A Burst of Light, that caring for oneself is not an indulgence but a radical act of self-preservation and political warfare in a hostile world.
Most of this language, however, has been co-opted under capitalism by brands seeking to sell an aesthetic, usually a feminized version of self-care. By now, this pseudo-empowering language is familiar, adopted by the beauty industry to promote skin care products, wellness and lifestyle brands like Goop, and marketers promoting home goods.
Culture writer Aisha Harris argued that the mainstream adoption of self-care coincided with the 2016 presidential election, as stressed Americans sought out coping mechanisms. “[Self-care] was the new chicken soup for the progressive soul,” Harris wrote in Slate. “The week after the election, Americans Googled the term almost twice as often as they ever had in years past.”
In the case of Bass and several other people I spoke with, the primary desire is to simply be prepared for the unknown, regardless of the election’s outcome. Mental health professionals are also urging their clients to develop a plan and set achievable daily goals. While many might see the election as the climax to this tumultuous year, the unofficial slogan of 2020 is, “Anything can happen.”
Cities are also quietly preparing for the potential of unrest, either on Election Day or in the weeks after. Walmart announced it will remove all guns and ammunition displays from its stores in late October, and promptly reversed its decision the next day. Activists and organizers are planning mass demonstrations if Trump wins — or if he loses and contests the election.
The pandemic has flattened the social nature of Election Night, rendering large watch parties and election-themed outings unadvisable. This year, the safest course of action is to stay home in a bubble of personal dread, surrounded by those you trust as the results trickle in.
Eric Crumrine, a queer fiction author based in Boston, is taking two days off work to stay home and relax. His group of friends is doing the same, with some taking the full week off, and their cluster is spending Election Night together.
“I feel like the added anxiety of the pandemic just put people in a space of really trying to be intentional about self-care practices too,” he wrote to me over Twitter. “I remember last election, the day after was such an overwhelming emotional experience that I couldn’t imagine doing that all over again, so I took the day off.”
Many voters say that their clear recollection of the emotional and political turmoil after 2016 kick-started their self-care plans. From her memory of that night, Bass has become warier of who she’ll surround herself with. “I was in college, and it was just very tense being a person of color on a campus that was politically divided,” she told me.
For Brooke Linville, an entrepreneur and writer based in Boise, Idaho, the stakes in 2020 have felt much higher than in past elections, especially with growing concerns over mail-in ballots arriving on time and long lines for in-person early voting. Thanks to social media, there’s added pressure to tune into the state of the race and listen to political commentary, which feels more anxiety-inducing than in years past.
“In my own self-care plan, I realize I have to detach somewhat from the outcome because if I don’t, I’ll be overwhelmed,” Linville told me. “But I also look at the election like a custody battle, and right now, it feels very much like we’re fighting for the custody of our country.”
Linville, who is 38 and a mother to two, is applying coping tactics she has learned through her own custody trial to handle the election. She has scheduled a therapy appointment on November 3, and while she’s planning to watch the results come in, she has set up small tasks in the weeks after the election to keep her preoccupied and present.
“I’ve decided to schedule dental work the day after,” Linville said, laughing. “I want to know that I’m doing things in the actual world that I live in. So I’m planning some at-home projects and acts of kindness that’ll make me feel better. I’ll also probably start decorating for Christmas early.”
Having a self-care plan doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is opting out of the political process, nor is it a substitute for voting or getting involved. For some, it’s a brief but necessary shift in priorities after having expended so much time and energy externally. Linville’s plan won’t apply until November 3, and she spent the weekend before going door-knocking in her community for the first time.
What is in your election day self-care kit?— Holly Stallcup (@HollyStallcup) October 27, 2020
Food (share those recipes and links)? Blankets? Candles? Tell us all your creative ideas to make the day a little lighter and, dare I say, enjoyable. (Mocktail recipes welcome. Mentions of alcohol not. Sober people deserve safety.)
On Twitter and other online spaces, people are sharing recipes, books, and other feel-good activities that will be part of their “self-care kit” to make Election Day slightly more enjoyable. Some are attending virtual meditation sessions, scheduling calls with their loved ones, dutifully avoiding alcohol, indulging in their favorite foods, or binge-watching television shows to distract themselves from current events.
Even news outlets are hopping on the trend: The New York Times has released an “Election Distractor” that features calming stock images and sounds, and the weekly newsletter Girls’ Night In collaborated with the Washington Post to share some self-care tips.
Despite all this strategizing for optimal self-care, mental health professionals say that most people won’t be able to avoid stress and anxiety entirely. “There’s no amount of self-care you can do that’s going to erase the stress that many of us are feeling,” said Melanie Dyer, an Austin-based therapist on the podcast But Have You Considered Therapy. “If you’re Type A or a perfectionist, it can feel like this additional stress that you’re failing at self-care.”
Dyer went on to say that many of her clients are feeling worried, hopeless, and helpless. “It’s going to be stressful and you’re going to feel stressed,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you’re not necessarily taking good care of yourself.”
Coronavirus cases are still at an all-time high in the US, and our pandemic-induced mental strain will soon collide with seasonal depression. Experts told the Washington Post that it’s possible there will be another increase in depressive symptoms among Americans in general as cold weather makes it more difficult to socialize outdoors.
The cumulative stress and trauma most Americans have experienced this past year is still weighing heavy on pretty much everyone. It’s wishful thinking to believe that those anxiety levels will be collectively reduced once the election is over.
But first, Election Day (and possibly the days that follow for votes to get counted). If you’re still on the fence about bingeing that bad Netflix show or testing out that New York Times recipe you bookmarked long ago, go ahead and treat yourself.