“The challenge is this comes on the backdrop of so much uncertainty in so many arenas – health, business, economic, social,” said stress management expert Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, an editor for “Contentment” magazine, produced by the American Institute of Stress.
“And since uncertainty is stressful for most humans, and all stress is additive, this overwhelms already fatigued coping skills,” Ackrill told CNN.
Tired brains don’t work well, sending less blood flow to such frontal-lobe executive functions as creativity, compassion, emotional regulation, the ability to handle conflicting perspective and rational judgment, she explained.
Those are exactly the higher executive functions we need to manage uncertainty, take action and remain hopeful, so it’s no wonder you might be feeling anxious, jittery, exhausted or depressed right now.
With this “chronic crisis,” our need to feel in control of something is amplified, so adding more uncertainty is frustrating, and possibly frightening, Ackrill told CNN.
“Acknowledge the fear,” Ackrill said. “Like all your emotions, it needs processing.”
While some fear is justified, “our brains can make the threat seem closer (or) worse,” she said. “Use that fear to motivate you to find places where you do have control, where you can take action, where you can take the best care of yourself to be fit for the challenge.”
Here are some steps you can take to fight back against anxiety, fear and uncertainty.
Recharge your batteries
“First, reach for that resilience toolbox,” said Dr. Tania Maria Caballero, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
“Recharge, re-center, take a break from social media and take care of yourself. New ideas and positive energy do not stem from a weary mind,” she said.
If your “tribe” on social media is supportive, that’s one thing. But all too often tensions flare when we can hide behind a keyboard, experts say.
“When I think about others’ expressions of anger, especially on a virtual platform, I remind myself that in order to have a flame from a spark, you need to add more sparks. If you do not fuel the angry spark, you cannot start a fire,” Caballero said.
Instead, Caballero suggested taking a walk; picking up the phone and talking with a good friend; and reading a favorite poem, prayer or song.
“Think of the choices you make as adding to your energy or subtracting – how can you tip the scales to more energy?” Ackrill said. “Every little bit adds up, just as stress energy drains add up. (Make) tiny shifts, tiny choices toward nourishing your best self.”
Let’s get physical
“Move! You are wired to meet stress with action,” Ackrill said.
Exercise will reduce those built-up stress chemicals, especially if it’s outdoors among trees, she said.
“Nature calms your brainwaves,” Ackrill said. “Dance it out to your favorite music. Music has an amazing ability to help you change mood.”
Try to combine activities into “triple plays,” Ackrill suggested, where you can combine exercise with emotional support and nature.
“Meet a friend to walk outside – six feet apart with masks, of course!” she said. “Do something with your hands that you can lose yourself in (flow) while listening to good music.”
Choose healthy snacks
After the initial stress eating, pick some brain-healthy snacks, Ackrill suggested. Omega-3 choices such as salmon, walnuts and flaxseeds are known brain boosters. So are berries, such as blueberries. In fact, one review found the antioxidants in berries can boost communication between brain cells.
Eggs are rich in choline, an important brain nutrient. And don’t forget your green and leafy veggies. People who ate just one serving of leafy greens such as spinach, kale, collard greens and arugula daily were a decade younger cognitively than those who didn’t, one study found.
Choose to hydrate with water (not alcohol). Because alcohol is a depressant, drinking can drown your mood. It may not seem that way while you “party” your inhibitions away, but that’s just the drink depressing the part of the brain we use to control our actions.
The more you drink, say experts, the more your negative emotions, such as anxiety, anger and depression, can take over.
Try to relax – even meditate
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds, has helped create a series of meditative soundtracks to cope with the anxiety of the election.
“What do we do with all this anxious thoughts and restless energy?” is a question asked in one soundtrack called “Dealing with Election Anxiety.” It was created by the Center’s nonprofit organization HealthyMinds Innovations, along with a second entitled “Healing Division.”
One solution is to “get curious” and observe your thoughts, according to the presentation. “And here’s the key – do not try to stop these thoughts, don’t even try to change them. That gives them more power.”
Then remind yourself that “thoughts are not reality. View whatever thoughts arise as if you’re watching some dramatic TV show. … They are not real.”
Davidson is well-known for his studies of the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks recruited by the Dalai Lama. He found tens of thousands of hours of meditation had permanently altered the structure and function of the monks’ brains.
If meditation’s not your thing, then try some mental distraction, Ackrill suggested.
“Think about what activities really boost your mental energy,” she said. “Read fiction. Do a puzzle. Mostly take some focus breaks so your brain can reboot. Be more intentional in how you use your brainpower.”
Get some zzzs
Good quality sleep helps boost our mood and feeds our creativity and cognitive function, which means we’ll be better able to problem solve, make decisions and pay attention.
Bad sleep, on the other hand, can make it much more difficult to cope with emotions.
“It turns out we lose our neutrality. The ability of the brain to tell what’s important is compromised. It’s as if suddenly everything is important,” said Dr. Talma Hendler, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Tel Aviv University, when speaking about a 2015 study she conducted on sleep and emotions.
But don’t stuff your emotions
Emotions are data, Ackrill said, necessary for telling you that you have needs that need to be met.
“Denial or stuffing them does not work,” she said. “Make space for processing some real feelings: grief, disappointment, frustration, anger or guilt.
“Allow yourself to have a full quilt of emotions that makes you human,” Ackrill added. “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself. There is no particular way you should feel and rewriting the story as somehow your fault does not help. Whatever you are feeling is real for you.”
One way to process your feelings is to write them out until the emotion feels captured on paper and you feel the emotional charge lessen. You can also reach out to a friend or loved one “you trust to hold you safely” and choose carefully. Ackrill suggested asking yourself: “Is this person truly helping you cope with the emotional load?”
Be sure to reach out to a therapist for help if you feel like you can’t get “unstuck from your feelings’ or the discomfort is getting hard to bear.
“Contrary to what our culture may have taught you, help is not a bad four letter word,” Ackrill said.
To keep us safe, our brain has about “five times the wiring for the negative, so you have to really practice the positive,” Ackrill said. That means frequent doses of uplifting thoughts are needed to strengthen those positive neural connections.
And here’s the good news: Studies of twins finds only about 25% of our optimism is programmed by our genes. The rest is up to us and how we respond to life’s lemons (including election uncertainty).
“There is research which indicates that optimism can actually be enhanced or nurtured through certain kinds of training,” said Davidson, from the Center for Healthy Minds, in a prior CNN interview. He found it only took 30 minutes a day of meditation practice over the course of two weeks to produce a measurable change in the brain.
“When these kinds of mental exercises are taught to people, it actually changes the function and the structure of their brain in ways that we think support these kinds of positive qualities,” Davidson said.
Ways to grow your optimism include keeping a journal of positives and taking a few minutes each day to write down what makes you thankful. A number of studies have shown that practicing gratefulness improves positive coping skills by breaking the typical negative-thinking style and substituting optimism.
One of Davidson’s favorite mindfulness exercises cultivates appreciation.
“Simply to bring to mind people that are in our lives from whom we have received some kind of help,” Davidson said. “Bring them to mind and appreciate the care and support or whatever it might be that these individuals have provided.”
“You can spend one minute each morning and each evening doing this,” he said. “And that kind of appreciation is something that can foster a sense of optimism about the future.”
CNN’s Faye Chiu, Ryan Prior and Kristen Rogers contributed to this article.