To De-Stress Before the Election, Try the “Titration” Method

Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

“Tick… tick… tick…” That’s the sound of the timer on the bomb forecast to detonate on November 3, 2020. Its rhythm is in step with society’s heartbeat (and fluctuating nervous system), a nagging reminder of this election’s high stakes. From right to left, few are immune — and many are anxious.

A new survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that more than two-thirds (68%) of American adults say that the 2020 U.S. presidential election is a significant source of stress in their life. This is a substantive increase from 2016, when 52% said the same. This increase exists across political affiliations: 76% of Democrats, 67% of Republicans, and 64% of independents report election stress.

The uptick is understandable, given that this election coincides with a number of crises: the coronavirus pandemic, a struggling economy, political intransigence, racial unrest and protests alongside violence and looting, and unprecedented natural disasters and climate concerns.

An added stress is the fact that the two candidates have diametrically opposing views on and strategies for addressing these (and other) social ills. We’re seeing fierce alliances form with one candidate or side, which raises the issue of “social sorting,” a term social scientists use to describe the phenomenon of groups self-isolating based on ideology and identity.

Perhaps the weightiest reason for 2020 election anxiety is the perceived existential threat that it represents.

This sorting is, as Lilliana Mason suggests in her book Uncivil Agreement, deteriorating the crosscutting social ties that once allowed for shared purpose and partisan compromise. “The more isolated we are from our social outgroups, the more we’re going to think of our own group as the best and think of our outgroups as terrible. It becomes this either-or, us-versus-them type of politics.” What we’re left with is an electorate that is deeply disgusted with and biased toward the “other side” and more willing to act on that disgust and bias. Sadly, this leads to nowhere good, as research shows that disgust makes moral judgments more severe and entrenched.

There is also the issue of our absurdly long election cycles and Donald Trump’s repeated equivocation on accepting the election’s results. Perhaps the weightiest reason for 2020 election anxiety is the perceived existential threat that it represents. As the divide between the two parties has widened in recent years, for many it now feels like a chasm, where the “other side” is seen as imperiling their way of life and the things they hold most dear. Whether it’s a particular candidate or party or issue, taken together, the anxiety surrounding what many see as a battle for good versus evil (with catastrophic results should their preferences not prevail) is equally epic in proportion.

Keeping a level head and a relaxed heart

With so much at stake and so much undecided, many people are feeling helpless and out of control. And even when the election is determined, and both a president and new Congress are installed, those feelings are likely to continue because of our fractured sociopolitical environment.

Studies show that the more out of control we feel about what is happening, the more stressful that feeling becomes. The higher our anxiety level, the lower our cognitive functioning. This is because the prefrontal cortex area of the brain — where rational, higher-order cognitive functioning occurs — effectively shuts down. When this happens, the nervous system becomes dysregulated and our ability to think clearly goes out the window.

Stress management tools often include “stepping out” of the situation—as the APA suggests when it comes to the election. Specific behaviors include things like putting your phone or device away, quitting doomscrolling, spending time in nature, and staying in touch with friends and family. These activities can certainly prove beneficial. But there is another kind of “stepping out” that can also ease election-emotion overload (and difficult emotions generally): It’s called titration.

Titration is something we ordinarily associate with chemistry or medicine — like adjusting the dosage of a prescription until the benefit/liability ratio is best suited. It can also be applied to human functioning. In somatic psychology, the word “titrate” is used to describe how much emotional “flow” we let into our system’s internal reservoir.

To titrate our experience is to keep ourselves in an intentional place of choice and safety by opening and closing the tap on our emotions. It’s a process by which we slow down our internal response — emotional, cognitive, and physiological — so that we can more effectively process incoming information and get back into our rational mind. It’s a skill that’s often used to help people heal from trauma, but it can also be helpful for managing overwhelming emotions. Luckily, it can be easily learned and, with practice, mastered. Here are a few tips and practices to get started.

Get comfortable with discomfort

Maybe you’ve just seen something disturbing in the news or are having a heated conversation with someone. Feel what’s happening inside your body, and pay close attention: Is your breathing getting short? Are your muscles tightening? Is your heart racing or chest pounding? Can you name one emotion you’re experiencing — just one? While tracking what you feel might not be enjoyable, stay with it. And then stay with it a bit longer until you feel it discharge. What you’re essentially doing is deliberately slowing down your emotions and uncomfortable body sensations, like slowing down the tempo of music. This has a regulating effect on your nervous system, as it brings your body back into equilibrium and your mind back to its ability to think clearly.

If at any time the experience starts to feel too overwhelming, pull yourself out of that sensation by shifting your attention to something external. A great way to do this is the 5-4-3-2-1 method. To practice this, name five things you can see around you (in your space, out the window). Then, four things you can feel (the warmth of your skin, your feet against the floor, the table in front of you). Then, three things you can hear (cars on the road, birds in the trees, a humming in the ceiling vent). Then, two things you can smell (take a deep breath in). Lastly, name one thing good about yourself. The 5-4-3-2-1 method is a great grounding technique for whenever a difficult emotion becomes overwhelming.

Getting comfortable with discomfort becomes easier over time if you practice it when you’re not feeling anxious. Here are some practices to help.

The anxiety surrounding what many see as a battle for good versus evil (with catastrophic results should their preferences not prevail) is equally epic in proportion.

Sit with emotion

Anytime, anywhere, sit quietly for one to five minutes and pay attention to what’s going on beneath the surface. You don’t have fish for sensation—just see what bubbles up. As you notice flames, flickers, or feelings, name them. When you’re keen to move on from one feeling, don’t. Stay with it. Be curious about how it moves, how long it lasts, etc. And then stay with it a bit longer. If the experience starts to feel too overwhelming, try the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. Gradually, you will become less affected by overwhelming emotions.

Observe your physical comfort

This practice is adapted from Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing. Bring your attention to how comfortable you feel wherever you are. (This is best done while sitting in a chair.) Take one minute to notice your overall experience. Next, wiggle your toes in your shoes and move your feet on the floor, shifting and adjusting until you feel really connected to the ground. Now, sense your back and bottom on the chair. Notice how it supports you. Notice if it’s supporting you, or if you are perched to the side or pitched forward. If so, relax into all of it and let the chair support you. Adjust until it feels comfortable. Then, take a full minute to enjoy being supported and stabilized by the chair. Finally, look around at your surroundings and notice something that feels meaningful or restorative — a moving tree outside the window, a piece of art, a happy photo, a calming color, a treasured possession. Allow those restorative feelings to fill your entire body. Then, notice how you feel about your overall comfort — physically and emotionally. Take note of what has changed.

Recall a kindness

This is also adapted from Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing. The point of titration is to regain a feeling of safety and openness. Sometimes we can do that by ourselves. Other times, other people — or our memory of others — can help. Wherever you are when you’re feeling overwhelmed or vulnerable, recall a time when someone was kind to you. Maybe that’s a family member or friend, a teacher or mentor, even a stranger. Remember everything you can about the experience — the words, gestures, touch, or actions the kind person used that soothed or helped you or made your life just a little bit better in the moment. As the memory becomes clear, notice any sensory aspects of it — what you see, hear, smell, or feel on your skin—as if you were back there now. Put a name to the emotion, both when you felt it back then and now as you recall the experience. If any negative feelings from the memory arise, imagine setting them in a bottle on a high shelf; then come back to the sensory aspects of the kind memory. Now, notice what sensations are coursing through your body and what your overall experience feels like.

I recall my father told me as a young girl that waves come in sets of seven, and that if ever I was out at sea, getting tumbled around in the undertow and feeling overwhelmed, I should “ride the waves,” meaning actively see a wave form on the horizon, stay alert but buoyant as it approaches, and when it crests, move with its undulation — rising up in the curve, experiencing a moment of immobility at the peak, and eventually sliding back down to calmer waters. This is essentially the heart of titration.

When difficult emotions begin to form within you—and the election may elicit many—the key is to sense them, acknowledge them, make room for them, and stay with them as they “crest” and become more intense than feels good, allowing each “wave” to move through — and eventually out of — your body. When we gain more confidence in our ability to ride waves of emotion, or titrate, we become able to hold difficult emotions while still maintaining our ability to think and act clearly. Perhaps if everyone learned to titrate, we might notice a little less rancor, emotional assaults, extremism, and division in our society.

Award-winning writer, therapist, clinical ethicist, and researcher specializing in moral injury. I talk about the stuff many won’t.

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