Staying Sane in Anxious Times (without being useless)

Everything dies. But not today.


On this blog, I usually report news, analyze trends behind the news, and save pastoral counseling for my occasional talks at churches. But this week I’ve been sensing an unusual level of anxiety and depression in the people I interact with, and I imagine that Sift readers are sharing a lot of those feelings. So let’s address that.

If the election were tomorrow rather than five weeks from tomorrow, I think I’d tell you all just to suck it up and think about your own issues later. But five weeks is a long time to stay in the states of mind I’m seeing, and carries risks of longer-term psychological and psychosomatic damage. So I think it makes sense to take a little time to get our heads together before the home stretch.

The depression, I think, has been building for some while, as the virus takes away more and more of what we look forward to in life. (I’m currently wondering if my usual Christmas plans can work out this year. Will I ever get to travel again?) But the anxiety is largely election-related, and increased suddenly this week in response to Barton Gellman’s article in The Atlantic, “The Election that Could Break America“.

Worst cases. I’ll have more to say about the content of that article in this week’s summary post, which should be out a few hours after this one. For now, I’ll just sum up the gist: There are scenarios in which Trump hangs onto power despite the voters’ desire to be rid of him, and he seems to be angling to push the country into those scenarios.

The worries raised by Gellman’s article (and others with similar themes) go well beyond the usual election anxieties: that some last-minute surge of support could carry Trump to an ordinary victory, or even that he might repeat 2016’s dubious achievement of winning the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote by a wide margin. Those outcomes would be disappointing, and would have a number of horrible consequences. But at the same time, they would be part of the normal ebb and flow of American politics. If the American people show the bad judgment to re-elect Trump, we’ll just have to work harder to convince them to turn the country in a new direction in future elections.

But if Trump can totally circumvent the will of the people, then something fundamental has changed. In that case, it’s hard to say what we would need to do next time, because this time we already did what we thought we needed to do, and failed anyway. And if the ordinary limits on political power-seeking can be ignored without consequence, then who can have confidence that we will have a chance to do anything at all next time? By 2024, the United States might be the kind of country where the ruling party counts the votes itself, and proclaims that it has been re-elected (for a third term, and then a fourth) by a margin that no one really believes.

In short, if the worst outcomes Gellman pictures come to pass, the American experiment with democracy might be over.

Personally, I don’t believe the worst scenarios will play out. I think the margin Biden has in the polls is real, and that it will hold up as the election approaches. (It’s worth pointing out that we all had the same doubts about the polls going into the Blue Wave of 2018, which played out exactly as the polls predicted.) In 538’s analysis, the current tipping-point state is Pennsylvania, where Republicans have gerrymandered their way into a majority in the legislature. But it’s worth noting that Biden is currently favored in four states beyond that — Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio — any of which might put him over the top. (Arizona would leave Biden 1 vote short, which could come from either Nebraska’s or Maine’s second congressional district.) It’s one thing to imagine one cabal of local Republicans venturing into near-treasonous territory to give Trump another term, but overthrowing democracy in five states simultaneously would be much harder to pull off.

In short, Trump’s anti-democratic tactics may nudge the dial a little, or even more than a little, but still not enough to overcome a decisive message from the electorate. As Michelle Goldberg has pointed out, his strongman talk is a sign of weakness, not of strength.

Autocrats who actually have the power to fix elections don’t announce their plans to do it; they just pretend to have gotten 99 percent of the vote.

And as many people have observed: You don’t question the legitimacy of an election you expect to win. Further: “I’m going to stay in power no matter what you think” is hardly a closing message designed to convince undecided voters.

But having said that, I don’t deny the possibilities Gellman lays out, and I don’t recommend you simply put them out of your mind. There is a chance — not a likelihood, in my opinion, but a chance — that we are living in the last days of American democracy.

It’s no wonder that people are telling me they lose sleep about that. That loss of sleep is the problem I want to address.

Anxiety and denial. It’s not that you have nothing to worry about, but being low-level anxious all the time — or occasionally going into high-level anxiety and melting into a puddle — is not a useful response. No one is better off because you’re not sleeping.

So what’s a better response? Let’s start by thinking about what anxiety is and what it’s for. People in the middle of emergencies typically don’t get anxious. If your child starts to run in front of a car, you don’t get anxious, you reach out and snatch her back from the path of the car — and maybe shake for a while afterwards about what might have happened. When the wolves are chasing you, you just run, and your mind is filled with nothing but running.

In short, when you really can fight or flee, you fight or flee. Anxiety happens when you get a fight-or-flight reaction that you can’t immediately act on. You hear that a lay-off is coming at work, but who can you fight and where can you run? You just have to wait and see what happens.

Anxiety is fight-or-flight on hold. It keeps you keyed up in case you have to fight or flee soon.

And that was a fine reaction when our primitive ancestors saw a motion in the grass and had to wait a bit for more information about what it was. But it’s poorly adapted to civilized times, when problems play out over months or years. Staying keyed up for months or years will kill you just as surely as whatever might be hiding in the grass.

That’s why denial is such a popular alternative. As the 19th century philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce put it: “When an ostrich buries its head in the sand as danger approaches, it very likely takes the happiest course.”

The downside of denial is that it makes you useless, both to yourself and to others. That’s been the problem with the Trump administration’s response to coronavirus. From the top on down, they have assured us that it isn’t that bad and will go away soon, so nobody has to do anything they don’t want to do. And everybody is doing a great job, so there’s no need for recriminations and nothing to stress over. In the short term, their it’s-all-fine denial may be more pleasant than acknowledging the reality of the danger, but it has been a big factor in the deaths of more than 200,000 Americans.

The reason anxiety is unpleasant is that it’s a promissory note: We owe the future some action, and we’re keyed up so that we don’t forget.

Perhaps the most dysfunctional role for anxiety, though, is that it can become an end in itself: We’re not keyed up to do something, we’re keyed up to punish ourselves for not doing something. We hang the promissory note on the wall, not because we’re going to pay it, but so that we can feel guilty about not paying it.

That kind of self-punishment serves no one. You might as well be in denial. You’d be happier and the rest of the world would be no different.

So what should we do? The best response to chronic anxiety, in my opinion, is to kluge together a combination of action and denial.

Years ago, when I was first starting to make money I could invest towards retirement — thank you, younger self — I found myself worrying about my fledgling portfolio nearly every day. Not just checking stock prices, but wondering if my whole approach was right. Eventually I realized that daily reconsideration of my strategy was an extremely inefficient use of my attention. Rather than worry for a few minutes here or there every day, what I really needed to do was set aside some serious thinking time about once a quarter.

So I set a date to think things through in depth, and I kept that appointment. I did that every three months. In between, I might watch the market in a casual way, but I cut myself off every time I started to fret. “I have set aside a time to think that through properly, and that approach is going to work  better than anything I could figure out while I’m standing here waiting for the tea kettle to boil.”

I recommend something similar now. Using the stray moments of your attention to think about the looming end of American democracy is not going to serve either you or the nation. Instead, block out a time on your calendar (within the next few days, I suggest) to think seriously about the question: “What am I willing to do to keep Trump from hanging onto power?” Are you willing to send money to the Biden campaign or some other political group? Volunteer? Call your friends and encourage them to vote? Write or call your representatives in Congress? Write letters to the editor? Post on social media? Demonstrate against anti-democratic actions, either at your state capitol or in Washington?

Maybe all you’re willing to do is vote. OK, admit that and figure out how you’re going to do it. Are you registered? Where is your polling place? How does early voting or voting-by-mail work in your state? Don’t let your inability to take some grand action get in the way of the little you can actually do.

Once you have your list of actions, start doing them, and set aside another block of time in a week or two to think about how it’s going. Is it enough? Is it already more than I can handle? Should I correct my approach somehow?

But once you’ve decided what you’re doing and are in the process of doing it, tell your anxiety to go away. You’ve set aside a time to think about it, but that time is not now. So STFU, monkey mind. I’m working on it; it’s all going to be fine.

Plan. Do. Then do your best to put it out of your mind until it’s time to replan. Are you feeling guilty that you’re not doing enough? Make a note of that, so you can think about it during your next planning session. But don’t think about it now. You’ve already dealt with it.

When it’s time for me to be the fox, I’m the fox. But when it’s not, I’m the ostrich, and I take the happier course.

Accepting limitation. You may already be raising this objection: The problem with telling yourself “I’ve already dealt with that” is that you really haven’t. Write your check, make your phone calls, plan your march on Washington — and Donald Trump is still out there, still in power, and still plotting to hang onto power no matter what the voters want.

When you realize that, you may find yourself thinking: “As long as Trump’s coup is still possible, I haven’t done enough.”

That way lies madness. Because you are an individual, and the problems of the world are out of your scale. You’re not going to stop Trump by yourself, just like you’re not going to stop global warming or end racism. You can play a part in those stories and I hope you do. I hope you never stop looking for some way to play a bigger part (at sensible intervals, and not for a few minutes several times every day). But you are not the solution. At some point, you have to do what you’re going to do and let it go, trusting the rest of us to play our parts, and trusting God or the Universe or whatever powers work on higher scales to make things come out right.

Because you can’t guarantee a happy ending. The World is not Your Story.

So figure out what you’re going to do, do it, and then let it go.

Accepting fate. It may not shock you to learn that my midlife crisis was more philosophical than most. It wasn’t just that I had a growing bald spot or was losing my vertical leap, although those things were certainly happening. And it wasn’t even the realization that I was going to decline and die, which we all understand at some level, but don’t fully grok until the downhill path starts to open up in front of us.

My midlife crisis centered on the larger realization that none of the substitutes for personal immortality work either: All the people whose lives you change will die too. The organizations and institutions you serve may outlive you for some while, but not forever; in time, they also will collapse. Someday, the last of your descendants will die. Ultimately, civilization will fall, humanity will go extinct, the Sun will swallow up the Earth, and the Universe itself will go cold.

It’s the Ozymandias problem: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”

Why am I mentioning this now? Because the possibility of a Trump coup is causing a lot of Americans to see for the first time that our democracy is mortal. And that vision can raise a primitive terror even bigger than the prospect of living under some tinhorn dictator, as people around the world have been doing since the beginning of Time.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Ever. Not to us.

But it might.

My midlife crisis and its resolution were bracketed not by insights from deep philosophers, but by two quotes from TV shows. At some point in The X-Files, an otherworldly character makes a matter-of-fact statement to the series’ main character: “Everything dies, Mr. Mulder.”

And in Game of Thrones, young Arya Stark mentions to her swordmaster that she has been praying to the gods. “For us,” says the master, “there is only one god. His name is Death, and we have only one thing to say to him: Not today.”

These days, I always hold those two quotes in mind. The thought that we might be living in the last days of American democracy is indeed horrible. But it shouldn’t be unthinkable, because it’s going to happen someday. Everything dies, and that includes the Constitution.

But the inevitability of Death doesn’t undo the lives we are living. We can’t save anything forever, but we can say “Not today.” And we can struggle to make good on that vow.

American democracy will die someday, because everything does. But not today. Not on November 3. Not on January 20.

That’s what we’re fighting for.

So figure out what you’re going to do, and go do it. But then let it go and live, because you’re not dying today either.

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Comments

  • joeirvin  On September 28, 2020 at 9:43 am

    My guess is that Trump will claim mail-ballot fraud and take it all the way to the Supreme Court and a 6-3 decision will agree with him in enough states to give him an Electoral College win and keep him in office.

    • dagoldner  On September 28, 2020 at 11:27 am

      and voter disenfranchisement, intimidation at the polls, etc makes the polling numbers inaccurate

  • Rich  On September 28, 2020 at 11:32 am

    Fantastic.

  • HAT  On September 28, 2020 at 11:44 am

    And here I thought you had gotten that line from *Groundhog Day.*

  • Eileen Prefontaine  On September 28, 2020 at 12:46 pm

    Thank you!

  • Anonymous  On September 28, 2020 at 12:47 pm

    An excellent primer on the whole anxiety thing and how to deal with it. And I think I *might* know where you got “monkey mind” :-).

  • reverendsax  On September 28, 2020 at 2:51 pm

    I like your quotes. Mine is like them, from Shinran, the 13th century Japanese Buddhist reformer:
    For those who count on tomorrow
    as for the fragile cherry blossom
    tonight unexpected winds may blow.

  • Bill Camarda  On September 28, 2020 at 3:37 pm

    You wanted to help people by writing this, and I think you did help me. Thank you.

  • susanmbrewer  On September 28, 2020 at 4:39 pm

    Your quotes immediately made me think of Hannah Arendt and the phrase “the banality of evil” — probably not a complete match, but evocative all the same.

  • RevLinda  On September 28, 2020 at 5:39 pm

    Some the most solid advice I’ve read.

  • Anonymous  On September 28, 2020 at 6:33 pm

    Thank you, Doug. Your advice is solid, actionable and much appreciated by me!

  • Anonymous  On September 28, 2020 at 10:44 pm

    Thanks

  • coastcontact  On September 28, 2020 at 11:12 pm

    This is more than Trump obtaining a second term. He is intent on remaining president for a third and maybe a fourth term. The 6 “conservative” justices will rule that he can. So American democracy is about to die. What is sad is that Americans are OK with this outcome.

    • frankackerman0617  On September 30, 2020 at 7:48 pm

      Yes, it is sad. But the possibility of committing suicide is woven into the fabric of any democracy.

      One task we might busy ourselves with is trying to understand the long-term flow of conditions that brought us here. Even if Trump should leave the White House in January, those conditions will still urgently need to be addressed.

      If so inclined, one might also start to consider how the continuation of Trump’s reign might affect you and your family and friends personally. Not a serious undertaking, but it might be calming to start enumerating a few options.

  • glrussell2  On September 29, 2020 at 7:17 am

    Good therapy to read your insights and advice. Thank you. As always!

  • Tory (they/them)  On September 29, 2020 at 9:51 am

    Hello! Long-time reader here (coming up on ten years!), and I wanted to say that I appreciate this piece – but it *does* have a certain slant towards neurotypicality. Obviously, not every piece needs to be tailored to every demographic, but I think it might be important to remember that anxiety and depression, even in these times, isn’t always 100% environmental. For a lot of people, it’s drawing out latent or suppressed mental health issues, and negatively impacting a lot of people with those pre-existing conditions. And yes, for many, that anxiety is preying on our election fears.

    One of the points I feel can be made – because the advice you give *is* good, even if the tone is a touch dismissive at times – is that more than just election-related anxiety reduction tactics are absolutely necessary, because a single approach never works long term. Trust me, I’m a disabled adult who’s struggled with their chronic anxiety since childhood, and if nothing else my experience has made that *abundantly* clear.

    If possible given health insurance, speak to a therapist, even if it’s only a single appointment. If a therapist isn’t possible, speak to your loved ones. Seek out mindfulness practices, even if you think it’s hokey. Practice self-care. We can make it through this, all of us – this election, and this year as a whole.

    And as a personal note – this newsletter has actively helped me in managing *my* political anxiety, because it’s comforting to see issues laid out clearly from a source I trust, with sources I can seek out on my own. For that, I thank you, and I hope you and your loved ones stay safe and sane in this tumultuous time.

    • weeklysift  On October 3, 2020 at 5:18 pm

      Thank you for adding your point of view. I completely agree that there can be anxiety and depression independent of what’s happening in the outside world or how firmly we tell ourselves to let it go. My parents both had depression problems as they got older, apparently because their aging brains got worse at processing neurotransmitters. (Since it’s on both sides, I probably have something similar waiting in my future.) Antidepressant drugs were like magic for them, and nothing else worked at all.

  • Rebecca  On September 30, 2020 at 10:09 am

    Doug — I started reading the weekly sift about 6 months ago and I can’t tell you how many people that I have shared it with since (dozens!)

    Your combination of compassion, insight and the ability to rise above the noise is incredibly valuable. Sadly, now more than ever.

    I realized after reading your about page (would not have guessed UChicago Mathematics, haha) that I had never just said THANK YOU.

    So, thank you for writing. You’ve got a devoted reader here in Oregon.

    • weeklysift  On October 3, 2020 at 5:19 pm

      Rebecca: I write to keep myself sane, and I love hearing that it helps other people.

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