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November 7, 2020

The country is on edge. Here’s how these women are coping with the anxiety.

Autumn Alexander, a 17-year-old living in Baltimore, couldn’t vote this election. But for hours, she watched the results from the presidential race trickle in with her family, realizing that the outcome would intimately affect her life as she starts adulthood, from her job prospects to access to health care. When it became increasingly clear that the results wouldn’t be announced that night, her “anxiety got really, really bad,” she says. She didn’t get to sleep until around 2 a.m., and the sleep she did get was “the toss-and-turn kind.” She woke at 7:30 a.m. to get ready for online learning.

There were no concrete answers, and everything still felt “overwhelming,” Alexander says. That is, until calculus class, when her teacher put up a slide of “ground rules” for Wednesday’s session. No. 1: It’s okay not to be okay. No. 2: You are important and your thoughts and feelings matter. No. 3: Every viewpoint is valid. No. 4: As a community, we are here to support each other.

For Alexander, those ground rules made her “feel heard.” As she puts it, “They said, I know you have a life outside of school and I know that you’re doing your best.”

Even for a moment, that acknowledgment eased some of Alexander’s anxiety. She ended up sending her teacher a message after class, thanking him for allowing the students to be vulnerable. And the unexpected event got her back on track for the day. Despite the few hours of sleep she’d gotten, she knew she’d be tutoring younger students that afternoon. “It helps me to be there for other people,” she says. “My stress reliever is honestly caring for others.”

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Alexander is one of many women across the country who have expressed deep anxiety over the uncertainty of the presidential election. Even before Nov. 3, 68 percent of Americans said the 2020 election was a significant source of stress, and women are more than twice as likely to be affected by anxiety disorders and panic attacks than men. Women of color say this election has been especially anxiety-inducing for them, given worries about increased violence and racism.
By Wednesday, many women were also sharing what they were doing to combat the stress. For some, self-care came in the form of painting; for others, shopping at Target or simply sitting outside.

Chloe, a 27-year-old Black woman who lives in Nashville and works as a paralegal, says her anxiety was so crippling that she decided to take the day off work. (Chloe agreed to speak on the condition that her last name not be used for fear of repercussions in her workplace.)
Election night had started off with some intentional ways of combating stress, Chloe says: lighting candles, cleaning up the apartment. Chloe and her girlfriend picked up groceries for a fancy dinner of steak and potatoes, and her girlfriend surprised her with the same full-sized birthday cake she’d gotten last spring. But once Trump clinched Florida and it was clear final results wouldn’t come on Tuesday night, Chloe went to bed around 11 p.m. When she woke up at 5 a.m., she decided to call in sick from work for the morning — and later, the afternoon. Chloe says she has spent most of Wednesday napping, waking up to check the latest news, and then going back to sleep.

“That’s the level of anxiety I’m at, where I’m just not functioning,” Chloe says. “I did manage to eat a little bit, so that was self-care. If I can just try to do the basics — having food and water and keep breathing, that’s how I’m going to try to get through the next couple days.”

“The basics” are paramount in self-care, according to Tamika Lewis, clinical director of WOC Therapy. “It’s really until we can manage those things — sleeping, eating, moving your body — that we can move to a higher level of functioning anyway,” she says.

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For women of color especially, self-care may be difficult to achieve because of society’s expectations. “There’s this White dominant culture around perfectionism, and especially as women of color, there’s a feeling that we have to go above and beyond constantly,” Lewis says. “I try to channel the words of Audre Lorde, who talked about self-care being a radical act — it’s the most revolutionary thing we can do.”

On Wednesday morning, Lewis woke up and did a morning meditation and had breakfast with her kids. Although it’s difficult to parent right now — “you are having to be this kind of pillar of strength at a time when we haven’t seen the likes of this,” she says — keeping routines helps her preserve a sense of normalcy. Then, she started talking with clients — another thing that can help ease anxiety, she says: “When your attention is focused on doing something of service or just something you love, it always helps to manage anxiety.”

There are other concrete tools to help manage anxiety around the election, according to Lewis. For her sanity, Lewis limits her amount of media intake, setting aside certain times in the day to check the news and otherwise shutting it off. It also helps her to do things around the house — little projects that “help give me some kind of agency over my life when everything feels like it’s spinning out of control,” she says.

Chloe is glad she has a therapy session scheduled for Wednesday night. Throughout the past couple of days, she’d already been using techniques she learned from therapy, including trying to look at the big picture and calling her friends.

She’s also taking solace in the fact that there “wasn’t much violence” on Election Day, and that voting lines in her home state of Georgia moved along smoothly. And she’s remembering to breathe.

“We can’t control what happens from here on out,” she says. “We just have to wait.”