Stress, Anxiety, and the 2016 Election (Or Why I “Literally Can’t Even” Anymore)

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Stress and anxiety have funny ways of manifesting themselves. One day you’re fine. Then you feel a certain level of discomfort nagging in the back of your mind. And then all at once, you’re just done. You can’t deal with anything anymore.

And that’s what happened this week. I’m tired. I’m done. I don’t feel like I can deal with anything anymore. Or maybe that’s not completely accurate. It’s the election. The election is the root of this. Unfortunately, everything seems to come back to it. It’s hard to find comfort in the fact that it’s almost over, because it doesn’t matter what the outcome is (well, it DOES matter, but that’s a different matter). Election Day isn’t the end. It’s merely the beginning. Has there ever been another time in history when two more despised individuals have stood before America and said, “make me your leader”?

It feels like just about everyone is outraged about something. I haven’t been completely blameless there, either. Despite myself and my belief to just not discuss it, I’ve been sucked into both conversations and outrage (sometimes at the same time) more times than I’m proud of.

This past week, I hit the wall. For weeks, I have been trying to just ignore the comments, stay away from the discussions, and keep things light. I’m really sensitive, though, and I don’t just mean that in a “you hurt my feelings” kind of way. I mean that I tend to absorb other people’s moods and energies. Several years back, in the midst of what felt like my never-ending unemployment, I realized that part of the reason I was a really unhappy person was because I left myself wide open to a lot of negativity and it made me feel really negative. Since then, I’ve been actively working to make my own world a more positive place. I’ve learned to deal with commonplace negativity and not let it affect me, but too much and I flip out, afraid that I will spiral back into that place. This election has taken it to a completely new level.

The first thing I had to do was limit my exposure to the news. I basically operate on a need-to-know basis and in small doses. In my mind, this isn’t ignorance; it’s self-preservation. The news always creeps back in anyway, so the next thing I had to do was be strategic about what I was seeing on social media. I hardly use Twitter anymore. I keep my Instagram feed about 80% full of internet-famous dogs and pictures of my nephews. I have never unfriended anyone on Facebook for their political opinions, but I’ve had to hide some people (Democrat and Republican alike) for my own sanity. It wasn’t necessarily even about their views, but more about the negativity they emanated in constantly trying to prove they knew more than anyone else. Also, they’re more than a little insulting, acting as though they alone are smarter than everyone else and so their opinions are clearly the only ones that matter, and they will be outraged if you disagree with them. I can’t honestly say, however, that I haven’t lost a lot (or all) respect for some people. It’s amazing what you learn about how people really are when someone has given them permission to be completely awful. It was draining me. It is draining me.

Side note: I did once unfriend someone to whom I haven’t spoken in 15 or so years anyway, but only because this person’s grammar drove me out of my mind. “I’s” is never going to be a correct possessive form. Example: “Joe and I’s dinner was delicious!” Oh my gosh, MY. “Joe’s and my dinner was delicious.” Or “Joe and I had a delicious dinner!” Abhorrent grammar used to be more offensive to me than some political beliefs.

But some people don’t give up. You can stand there and tell them that you don’t want to argue and they will just keep pushing at you, trying anyway. I had to find ways to keep those people away from me in the same way one tries to keep himself away from that jerk on the playground who follows you around, finger half an inch away from your face, exclaiming, “I’m not touching you! I’m not touching you! I’m not touching you!”

Someone always ended up punching that kid, and I didn’t want it to be me. I will respect our differences as long as you respect my boundaries, particularly when I am telling you exactly what they are.

As Election Day is reaching its fever pitch, I’ve had to start hiding all political posts on Facebook. The ones I agree with and the ones I don’t agree with are equally making me feel like I can’t breathe. By Tuesday afternoon this past week, my stomach started settling into this place of anxiety where you just feel like your nerves are shot. You know that feeling. I felt anxious, my legs bouncing constantly, unable to sit still, focus waning. By Wednesday, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I had to keep reminding myself to take deep breaths. To keep hiding statuses and scrolling on by those news stories. It might have been a good time to take a break from the internet, but when you work on the internet, that’s not really possible. I started feeling the tingling in my arms that happens when I hyperventilate. It was starting to slide out of my control.

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Thursday is when I snapped. Already feeling like I was at about 97% of my anxiety capacity, I tried going about my day in the usual manner, with some adjustments for sanity’s sake. But it just ended up being one thing after another after another after another. It was politics. It was people. It was personal responsibilities. It was people again. It was having to make a decision about who I was going to let down when faced with a decision that put me in that position. It was driving 23 miles with my gas light on, praying I could just make it home. I knew that I was in the midst of an anxiety attack. I knew it as soon as I started talking to someone and could hear myself. I knew it because my face felt like it was stuck in “pained worry” scowling mode. I knew it when I felt like the energy it took for me to interact with people on any medium was more energy than I had. I didn’t want to talk to anyone and ignored emails and text messages, which is something I never do. It was like the human equivalent of your iPhone telling you it’s getting critically low and is going to switch over to low-power mode. I went into low-power mode, but the kind where you sit and frantically scribble out lists of things you’re afraid you’re going to forget to do.

In the midst of all of this, I started having really bad lower back pain. About a half hour after it started, it was shooting from my back into my hip, and then radiating down to my knee. An hour later, I had trouble getting down three flights of steps. An hour after that, I had trouble getting up one flight. The pains weren’t entirely new to me — I herniated a disc in my back when I was 16 and I’ve had arthritis pains ever since then, but after 17 years of dealing with it, I know the kinds of conditions under which they usually appear, and this wasn’t any of them. All of my muscles on the left side of my body tightened up until it hurt to breathe. It was actually a little scary, so I looked that up. Fun fact: apparently when you reach a certain level of stress and anxiety, your body goes into hyperstimulation mode, your muscles tighten up, and you just feel lots and lots of pain.

Friday also brought a sick feeling to my stomach and a complete inability to eat anything.

I mean, good thing I’m already on blood pressure medication. That might have been what saved me this week. I’m stressed out, burned out, and full of anxiety. I just don’t feel like myself. I’m done with this feeling. It needs to go now.

This is where I’m at with this election season. This isn’t fun politics. This isn’t friendly competition. This is just a crap-ton of negativity and people who relish others’ misery as they point fingers and say “I told you so!” and I’m sure that I’m not the only person feeling like it’s crushing me. This is stress and anxiety. This is an ugly example of humanity. This is an ugly example of us. This is dehumanizing people (and trying to justify it). This is a total lack of empathy. This is friendships ended and family relationships destroyed. Over politics. I’m so jealous of the people who can separate it and not let it bother them. I can’t. I want to so badly, but despite all my efforts of hiding and strategy, the only way I can keep it away from me is to read.

Like other times of high stress and anxiety in my life, I’ve found myself retreating into books. In the house, I dive into paperbacks. I just finished Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects the other day and began reading Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. In the car, I listen to audiobooks. I recently finished The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and began listening to Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson (you probably know her as Natalie on Mrs. Doubtfire, or as Matilda).

I am a slow, slow reader. It seems like I never get very far in a sitting, but that doesn’t even matter to me right now. All that matters is that for those minutes that I’m reading, I’m not being hit with political spew. I’m not feeling conflicted emotions over liking a person and hating their politics. I’m not questioning people I respected and feeling sad that my view of them is changing despite my intent to not let politics win. I’m sure people feel like this about me, and then I feel conflicted about whether or not I care; whether or not I even have the ability to care right now. I’m so focused on just trying to breathe and turn the page.

The older I get, the faster I tire out when reading, too. This legitimately makes me sad because I have always loved getting lost for hours in a book. Now I might read for a half hour or an hour and then, focus going bad, I have to get up and do something else. Or I fall asleep. Falling asleep isn’t always bad. It’s just the bonus of getting to actually fall asleep without worrying about how one election outcome will affect everything, or without worrying about something someone said on Facebook or an opinion someone might have of me for expressing a belief.

Thinking so much (or maybe more accurately: worrying so much) is exhausting. Physically and mentally. Writing has also always been a good way for me to process what’s going on around me, but as I finish this, I feel too tired to even hold my head up. I’m resting my chin on an empty apple juice bottle. Seems like there’s a book calling me from the couch.

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