If you’re feeling nervous about the looming U.S. election, and results that may take longer than a single day to resolve, you’re not alone.
“I joked with my friends that I wished someone would, like, knock me over the head on election morning and wake me up when the decision is made,” says Kate Sweeny, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside (UCR).
Sweeny isn’t your average anxious voter. She has devoted a big part of her career to studying how humans deal with uncertainty as they await the outcomes of events they deem important.
Evolutionarily, anxiety serves a purpose. It’s a blaring alarm inside your head that something bad—legitimately dangerous—could soon occur, and that you should try to prevent it, or at least prepare for it. But sometimes, that response goes haywire. And amid uncertainty, our brains have an especially hard time calming down.
“Our data very consistently show that over basically every waiting period we’ve ever studied, that people get more worried, and they sort of try to cope more frantically in those moments of truth,” says Sweeny, who is the principal investigator of UCR’s Life Events Lab.
Waiting for results from tests, elections or anything else with an unclear outcome may feel like a special kind of torment. And not everyone responds to different waiting scenarios in the same way. Time might even seem to pass differently. Using brain imaging techniques, scientists have found that the anxiety surrounding uncertainty taps into the same brain circuitry as fear of definite threats. And with an understanding of the neuroscience behind anxiety, scientists have come up with strategies you can use to help restore a sense of calm and emotional regulation.
Researchers like Sweeny who have studied anxiety among voters have noticed some trends.
In a 2019 study in Motivation and Emotion, Sweeny and Kyle Rankin, a graduate student at UCR, surveyed 699 Americans who voted in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and 376 citizens who voted in the 2018 midterms. They found that voters who viewed the election as more important, those more politically engaged and those who think waiting in general is difficult, said they worried more about the election results. Interestingly, individuals’ level of media exposure was not significantly linked to more worry.
Not all waiting and worrying about the uncertain future is alike, however. Aspiring lawyers, for example, spend a grueling limbo period—in California, it’s four months—before receiving scores from the bar exam. Ph.D students may have an even longer, agonizing experience searching and waiting for academic positions. And as elections approach, anticipation builds among those deeply concerned with who will lead their community, their state or their country.
These groups do not necessarily respond similarly in terms of their emotions and health behaviors while awaiting news, according to a 2019 study in Psychology and Health by Sweeny and Jennifer Howell, a health psychology researcher at University of California, Merced. Regardless of which candidate they supported, voters who were more worried about the presidential election results in 2016 tended to report drinking more alcohol than those who were not as worried. The bar exam takers showed the same pattern, but the PhD students did not. More research is needed to explore the consistency, and to check for a possible causal relationship between anxiety about uncertain news and behaviors such as alcohol consumption.
Now, Sweeny is looking at a new, timely cohort—446 participants voting in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, among whom 242 are voting for former Vice President Joe Biden, 182 for President Donald Trump and 22 for a third party. Unpublished, preliminary data from this ongoing survey effort suggest that Biden supporters report feeling more anxious than Trump supporters. Sweeny has not formally delved into why.
But it’s no secret that amid the disruptions to daily life amid the Covid-19 pandemic and uncertainty about the fate of their nation, many Americans are on edge.
“Now, the elections are something like the anti-Christmas, because people are dreading it,” says Marc Wittmann, author of Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time and a neuropsychologist at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany.
Waiting for an event you are focusing on can actually mess with your sense of time, Wittmann’s research has found. In one of his studies, published in April in Acta Psychologica, subjects were told to wait in a room while the experiment was getting set up. That story was a decoy; the experiment was actually studying their perceptions of waiting over a period of seven-and-a-half minutes. When participants were asked to rate their experience, those who are usually impulsive, or who felt the most boredom and other negative emotions, overestimated the amount of time that passed.
So what is going on in the brain when you are anxious about something like your favored political candidate losing an election, and the uncertain negative consequences that may follow?
When it comes to a certain, imminent threat, such as a car racing toward you as you cross a street, neuroscientists often talk about the “fight or flight” response, that impulse we have to either combat a threat or run away from it. The brain’s key emotional center or limbic system, which includes structures called the amygdala and hippocampus, activates this response through rapid cell firing.
Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline flood the bloodstream, which might make you sweat and your heart beat faster as your muscles engage, to prepare your body to move you to safety. But this is also what happens during heightened anxiety or a full-on panic attack, which can be triggered by a non-physical threat.
When this emotional center takes over, the front part of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, takes the backseat, says Nii Addy, associate professor of psychiatry and of cellular and molecular physiology at Yale University. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for emotional regulation and decision-making. In situations with elements of uncertainty, such as a possible but unidentified threat, the limbic system kicks into high gear.
“With more certainty there’s more of that emotional control that we have,” he says. “Once we get toward uncertainty, those other areas of the brain take over to try to move us out of an uncertain situation, into a state where we are more certain,” Addy says.
Scientists once thought of fear and anxiety as having distinct brain circuitry. Fear refers to intense, fleeting reactions to imminent and clear threats—that flight or fight response. Anxiety is more about feeling heightened arousal or vigilance in response to uncertain or diffuse threats. Even Sigmund Freud considered fear and anxiety as different phenomena, says University of Maryland neuroscientist Alexander Shackman.
But a recent study in the Journal of Neuroscience supports the idea that the neural circuitry behind fear and anxiety are connected. The amygdala, that almond-shaped structure in the brain’s emotional center, has long been associated with a response to certain danger. A neighboring region called the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, associated with anxiety, is part of the same network reacting to certain and uncertain threats, Shackman and colleagues find.
The researchers looked at subjects' brains in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner as they awaited a painful (though harmless) electric shock combined with the presentation of an unsavory image, such as a picture of a mutilated body, at the same time as a sound, such as a scream. To simulate waiting for a “certain” threat, experimenters gave participants a “3, 2, 1” countdown before an unpleasant shock-image-sound combination. Other subjects first viewed a random string of numbers, which created uncertainty as to when the icky stimuli would arrive.
Both threat scenarios appeared to activate the same network in the brain, strengthening the case that fear and anxiety should not be thought of as biologically separate.
“If they were totally different, you would have to develop totally different biological treatments,” Shackman says. “To the degree that they partially overlap, you can start to contemplate broad-spectrum biological interventions that would help with extreme fear and extreme anxiety.”
This is just one neuroimaging study and only 99 subjects participated. And in real life, no one barrages you with random numbers before delivering bad news. But the study adds to mounting evidence that the brain’s responses to certain and uncertain threats share deep-rooted connections.
But neuroimaging studies tend to only capture human brains over 20-to-30-second periods, Shackman notes. And rodent brain-scan experiments tend to last only about 10 to 15 minutes per critter. Less is known about what exactly happens in the brain over longer periods of anxiety.
So, the neuroscience behind the “pervasive distress” common in anxiety disorders is still a work in progress. And no one has spent calendar year 2020 ensconced in a brain scanner (although, given all of the mayhem in the world, perhaps some would have volunteered).
But scientists do know that, as a result of heightened states of anxiety over long periods of time, the brain can change in structure, cells and activity, Addy says. Prolonged anxiety can lead humans to become hypervigilant, where they are anxious when no real threat exists. This is relevant to post-traumatic stress disorder, in which a panic or fear response is triggered in a person who experienced a traumatic event in the past.
“In a lot of ways, with everything that happened with Covid throughout the world, it’s almost as if society, in a sense, is going through a type of collective trauma,” Addy says.
Not all anxiety is bad, though. It can be a motivating agent, scientists say. You can channel your jitters from worrying about the future into political action, community building and fighting for the change you want to see. If reading endless streams of news and social media content fuels your worries, try to limit the doomscrolling and instead come up with concrete plans to help your family and community in safe ways, Shackman says.
Having a consistent daily routine is important to reengaging the prefrontal cortex, Addy says, helping to move through waves of emotion and stimulate areas of the brain that calm down your heightened reactions.
Finding activities that get you into a “flow” state, in which you are fully engaged in the present moment and time seems to pass quickly, can be a great way to get through times of uncertainty, Sweeny says. It might be baking, gardening, competing in video games or playing music. It might not even be recreational—Sweeny feels her flow state while doing data analysis.
And don’t forget, that, like at a football game, no matter how loud you scream, your emotional reaction isn’t going to affect the players’ performance or the eventual score, Wittmann says. Your anxieties aren’t going to develop a Covid vaccine, or sway the outcome of the U.S. election.
Those on edge about election results may take some comfort in knowing that, according to Sweeny, anxiety decreases once the outcome arrives—even if it’s not the result you wanted.
Disappointment and other negative emotions may flood in, of course. But bad news is, in its way, an antidote to anxiety because it squashes uncertainty. The agony of the wait itself evaporates.
“It is a relief to just know what we’re dealing with,” Sweeny says.