Like so many other people I know, I’ve spent the least eight months figuring out how to spread out my Covid-19 and election-related stress in a way that makes everyday life livable. I metered my anger; I figured out anxiety-diluting strategies; I got through one day of uncertainty and fear, then the next, then the next. I created basic, anchoring routines for each day, and I worked to cultivate spare moments of peace and something that approximates happiness. I figured it out because I had no other choice. My life wasn’t great — but it was bearable.
It’s not just fears of contracting Covid-19 or anxiety about who will win the presidential election — it’s more, “How will my community and my state and my country recover from this physical and economic calamity?”
But this week, my body began to tell me a different story. After all these months, my anxiety dreams began to incorporate Covid-19. In them, I show up in a store or to an event and I’ve somehow forgotten my mask, or everyone else has. My sleep, which had largely steadied, is beginning to disintegrate again. My misophonia — an actual medical condition in which particular sounds, especially chewing, make you feel like you want to bang your head against the wall — is off the charts. My stomach churns, my muscles ache. I feel totally scattered, unable to concentrate, sensitive to everything.
My partner’s migraines rolled in every day for the past week. No one I know was sleeping well. Once-manageable conditions — tinnitus, hot flashes, colitis — have spiraled out of control. All of our already bad digital habits, especially doomscrolling, have gotten worse. As I sit here writing, a devouring headache has traveled up my spine, over my skull and into my jaw bone. “All my coping strategies are failing,” one person told me recently. “I am coming undone.”
It’s not just fears of contracting Covid-19 or anxiety about who will win the presidential election. It’s more, “How will my community and my state and my country recover from this physical and economic calamity?” And, “Will American democracy be dismantled?” It’s constantly wondering: Are you doing enough? Do you have any more hours, more money, more desperate energy to give? What more can you wring out of your already wrung-out self so you can change the direction of this country?
There’s also the knowledge that there will be no catharsis on Election Day, because the president and the GOP have quietly and not-so-quietly been setting up an infrastructure to ensure that any win will be contested. Imagine running a marathon, seeing the finish line and then having someone on the sideline yell that you need to turn around and run all the way home. That’s what this election burnout feels like. The unknowns — about the virus, a potential cure, just how long all of this will last — just continue to cascade. The approach of winter feels like being in a dark tunnel closing in on both sides. Your fatigue accumulates gradually, until one day you realize you’ve been struggling to breathe for weeks.
The foundations of this stress are not new, even if they are new to some people. For years, a lot of white, middle-class people in the U.S. have been insulated from the reality that an election could have dramatic effects on their lives. President Donald Trump pulled that privilege away and introduced bourgeois liberals to what BIPOC, poor people, queer people and disabled people have been feeling for centuries. Feeling unsafe in public spaces, uncertain that law enforcement will protect you, fearful that certain rights could be taken from you without warning — for millions of Americans, the stress and threat was always there. But the thrum of constant worry has started to feel like someone screaming in your ear.
Imagine running a marathon, seeing the finish line, and then having someone on the sideline yell that you need to turn around and run all the way home. That’s what this election burnout feels like.
What’s changed is that our surge capacity — the body’s ability to process stress — was depleted months ago. We have so much grief and nowhere to put it. When you can’t process something, it builds up, like bile. And no matter how creatively or diligently you try to ignore it, it’s still there, slowly festering. At some point your body begins to betray your best compartmentalization strategies. Our dreams have become vivid and terrifying because sleep is one of the places we allow ourselves to confront our sadness and fear.
This sort of chronic instability, and the burnout and exhaustion that accompany it, fundamentally changes us. In some cases, our bodies and minds force us to check out entirely. We turn inward, become apathetic and withdrawn, neglect the effects of our actions on others and indulge our worst, most selfish and desperate selves.
If that’s what you need to do in order to keep going just one more day: Do it. But dropping out of civil life — of caring — is a worst-case scenario. What you can do, at least in the short term, is take the advice of my friend, clinical psychologist Darcy Lockman: Lower the bar. Now, look at that bar, and lower it again.
That philosophy can apply to basically everything in your life that you, personally, control: your appearance, the cleanliness of your house, your to-do list, your parenting, even your relationships. What is actually essential, and where can you give yourself some much-needed, even if temporary, slack? How can you give yourself the smallest — but nonetheless substantive — break from the relentlessness of your life right now?
If, like me, small measures of control make you feel better about a lack of control elsewhere, what’s something that will give you some form of short-term catharsis? You’re not the only person in your life who feels like things are falling apart, even more than they were falling apart before. Ask your friends in the group chat. Actually talk to your partner about it. If you have kids and they are old enough, talk to them, too. Our struggles can feel unique and unknowable to anyone else. But just admitting out loud that you’re feeling broken can produce something like strength.
I’m still oscillating between hope and despair, between believing the polls and rejecting them, between imagining the possibilities of radical, wide-ranging societal change and steeling myself for four more dark years. But the exhaustion we feel at that prospect is, as Dahlia Lithwick pointed out in her recent piece on the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, the point. If Republicans can’t win the popular vote, they’ve decided to win by simply wearing down the opposition: in the courts, in the legislature, through disinformation and on social media.
If Republicans can’t win the popular vote, they’ve decided to win by simply wearing down the opposition: in the courts, in the legislature, through disinformation, and on social media.
This arduousness has not been accidental. The response to this virus didn’t have to be another battle in the culture war. Voting doesn’t have to feel like a mythical hero’s journey. Applying for unemployment, taking a Covid-19 test, feeling confident that people will respect rules about masks — none of it should be this hard. That difficulty was always the point. Make things hard, and infuriating and time-consuming, and eventually people will give up — or at least fall in line.
The rallying cry that emerged in the wake of Trump’s election was resist. Resist normalizing Trump’s behavior. Resist his policies. Resist the spread of Trumpism — and resist his vision for America. Some people have been resisting for as long as they can remember. And others, new to this fatigue and fear, are arriving at new stages of empathy and solidarity. All of this resistance has exacted a steep toll. But if you’re on the brink of falling apart, it’s not a symptom of failure. It’s evidence of bone-deep care and commitment to a different vision of what this country can be: for yourself, for your family and for those who are nothing like you but deserve it nonetheless.
Be gentle on yourself these next few days. And remember that part of what we’re fighting for is to never feel this way again.