We Asked a Psychiatrist for Tips on How to Watch the Debates Without Freaking Out

One tip: Maybe...don't drink while watching it?

Remember last week? Remember the presidential debate?

A lot has happened since then, so you’re forgiven if it seems a bit hazy. But the showdown between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was, in the words of CNN anchor Dana Bash, “a shit show.” And if Twitter is any indication, the American public felt the same way. The site was filled with quips about rocketing stress levels and anxiety-fueled cocktails (the traffic to Washingtonian’s drinking game was off the charts).

Unfortunately, we’ve still got a ways to go before we can be debate-free. Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris will debate Wednesday at 9 PM EST (and, yes, we created another drinking game for it), and Biden and Trump are supposed to debate two more times if Trump’s Covid diagnosis will allow it.

So, if you’re someone that needs to watch the debate for work or you simply feel a civic obligation to tune in, how can you do so without giving yourself an ulcer? Fairfax psychiatrist Jennifer Santoro shares some tips for managing your anxiety while viewing:

Practice mindfulness

Santoro recommends registering how the debate is making you feel physically by doing a body scan. “Take about 20 seconds to check in with yourself and ask ‘How am I feeling? Where am I holding tension? How’s my breathing and how’s my heart rate?,'” says Santoro. “If that stuff starts to become disregulated because of the stress and listening to the debate and the emotions that you’re feeling, that’s great evidence that you need to step back, step away, and put things on mute.”

As for the psychological, she recommends creating emotional distance from what’s happening on the screen. To do this, Santoro suggests literally telling yourself a story about what you’re seeing in front of you. “You step back, you observe, you describe what you’re seeing,” she says. “And that can create a sort of buffer so you’re not just this person experiencing the emotional contagion of the agitation and negativity and hostility in front of you.”

Maybe…don’t drink

It’s a common response to reach for a glass of wine when stressed, says Santoro, but it can actually make you feel worse in the long run. “Alcohol, short-term, offers people temporary relief,” says Santoro. “Alcohol feels great for those two hours that it’s active in your system, but your body [while you’re drinking] has been trying to undo the slowing and sedation. What’s the flip side of that? It’s anxiety and agitation.” Alcohol can also affect your sleep, she says, which will make you feel worse and more irritable the next day.

If you do want to have a drink, just check in to see if you’re feeling triggered to overindulge. “The rule of thumb is if you would normally have one or two drinks, and you’re having a bottle during the debate,” says Santoro, “then you’re drinking too much.” If this sounds like you, maybe don’t play our drinking game.

Take time to decompress post-debate

Instead of scrolling through Twitter until you pass out, it’s a good idea to do something soothing after the debate to wind down, says Santoro. “Create that space for yourself in your personal life. Either you’re checking in with a family member or you’re doing something that’s just self-care,” she says, such as going for a walk or taking a shower. “That’s a sensory shift and creates space to wind down.”

Santoro also wants to reminds folks that it’s okay to feel some stress and anxiety during an unprecedented time. “Our baseline stress level is higher, and we’re going to spill over and tip more easily to higher levels of distress, anxiety, agitation, and irritability,” she says. But it’s important to monitor your behavior and emotions to make sure you’re not crossing the line into unhealthy thoughts or actions. “If it’s spilling into your functioning in other parts of your life—you’re drinking more heavily than normal, you’re irritable with your significant other or your roommate or kids,” she says, “step back. Regulate yourself. Do that self check-in; walk away.”

Mimi Montgomery Washingtonian
Home & Features Editor

Mimi Montgomery joined Washingtonian in 2018. She’s written for The Washington Post, Garden & Gun, Outside Magazine, Washington City Paper, DCist, and PoPVille. Originally from North Carolina, she now lives in Del Ray.