Exam results, buses, a vaccine for coronavirus and, yes, election results: waiting for things is something we spend much of our lives doing, especially this year, but also something many of us are bad at – or at least uncomfortable with.
That sense of impatience and restlessness is rife as, all around the world, people watch the US Election results roll in. And a huge rise in postal votes this pandemic year means the counting process may take longer than usual.
As we repeatedly hit refresh on those blue and red figures, the wait can feel excruciating – like hanging on a decision about a life-changing job or the emotional countdown to offloading something important from your mind.
So much is on the line: the style of a trade deal struck between the US and the UK will be shaped by whichever president makes it to the White House, a deal that matters all the more when we depart the EU.
Plus it’s hard not read the US election as a temperature take of global politics, a sign of the direction we’re all headed in over the coming weeks and months.
This uncertainty makes the wait harder. And to cap it off, in England, this is compounded by other forces we have little control over, the start of a second national lockdown this week that will last until at least December, maybe longer.
In short, there’s never been a better time to get to grips with the stress of waiting. It’s an inevitable part of life and managing it is crucial to wellbeing.
HuffPost UK spoke with psychologist Vanessa King, head of psychology at Action for Happiness and author of 10 Keys to Happier Living, to find out more about what’s actually going on right now in our brains.
What’s happening right now, mentally?
“Clearly the US Election is really important to many many people, which is the reason we feel anxiety or concern, whichever way you’re voting,” says King.
Acknowledging the frustration, anxiety or stress caused by the wait is the first step. There could be two things going on depending on your brain wiring, she says: for those focused on the short-term, our nervous system is demanding answers, and that can be causing us to feel erratic emotions. Those with a longer-term perspective are likely to feel a little more balanced.
What can we do to feel better today?
Most of us are preoccupied with the day’s news cycle right now. So here are three things Dr King suggests you can do to help your mental health today.
Firstly, distract yourself with something engaging that’s either fun or meaningful. “Get something done, learn something new,” says King. “Feeling a sense of control is really important. Clearly we have no control over the election so we need to think about little areas in our lives we can control in the short term.”
Secondly, connect and reach out to others. “We have in our brains a fear system, a threat system, but we also have a ‘care and tending to friends’ system,” says King. “Reach out and connect with others, even across the voting divide. Think: what can I do to help someone else today? What can I do to be kind to other people, and kind to myself.”
The third is to get grounded in your body. “Go out for a walk, get physical, if you’re building up tension, dissipate that with some activity,” advises King. “Going for a run if you’re a runner, going out for a walk, putting out some music and dancing. Something physical to distract or engage your mind.”
And in the long-term?
Self-regulation is key, says King, who says if we can achieve more of it, we’ll feel the wellbeing benefits throughout our lives. Even though we may experience erratic emotions, we have an understanding, deep down, of the need to wait.
What’s true of the US Election results – “it’s better to wait than to rush it and for people’s votes to not be counted properly,” King says – is also true of other important areas of our lives – from exam results to important conversations.
King says there are two forms of happiness but we should focus on the latter one. “One is the kind of instant pleasure – I want it, I want it now – and the other is ‘eudaimonia’ – which is more about fulfilment and meaning, and purpose.
Working towards this fulfilment can be a longterm aim. “It doesn’t feel good along the way: challenges, difficulties, having to wait for things,” says King, who adds that the constant cycle of digital media can trigger those ‘need it now’ emotions.
Instant thrills – whether that’s dopamine of a social media like or something stronger – “can get in the way of us working towards a deeper, more fulfilling, longer-lasting form of happiness, which is this deeper fulfilment.”
In sum, if you can start thinking longer term while keeping busy with healthy, positive actions in the short term, you will start to reap the wider benefits.
“Kindness is also associated with wellbeing,” King points out. “So by saying, ‘I am frustrated, but there are some constructive things I can do,’ you are not only reducing your own stress and frustration levels, you’re actually giving yourself a wellbeing boost – and that has a ripple effect out to others.”