While Americans line up to vote Tuesday, all Canadians can do is wait, powerless to affect the outcome a vote that will shape the future of our influential neighbour.

The vote, occurring during an already fractious year marked by a global pandemic and widespread protests against racial injustice, has been called the most important election in the “modern history” of America. Now that the first major results are just hours away, U.S. voters, and many non-citizens, can feel the crescendo of anticipation and anxiety.

The wait may be agonizing, as waits often are, says psychology professor Kate Sweeny.

“Waiting for news combines two things: the uncertainty of not knowing what’s coming, and a lack of control,” Sweeny, an associate professor with the University of California, Riverside, told CTV News.ca over the phone Monday. “From an existential or evolutionary perspective, both are bad situations for survival and well-being.”

The anxiety we feel as we wait may be well-intentioned, she added, acting as a kind of “alert system to tell us — ‘Look out! You’re out of control.’” But an election comes with an added dose of powerlessness: beyond voting, little else can be done to affect the outcome and calm the perceived threat.

For Canadians, there’s even less to be done, says Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. People are wired to act on goals through a “motivational system” that provides us with energy to get something done, he told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Tuesday. But when a deadline has passed -- or you can’t vote -- you have the energy without direction.

“That creates a lot of heat, so you feel anxiety or stress if the thing that’s out there is potentially bad,” he said. “For people from other countries, for better or for worse, the American election is often consequential to what happens in the rest of the world. There’s really nothing you can do about it except sit and watch.” 

Your anxiety levels could be impacted purely based on who you support, too. There is evidence to suggest that people who support incumbents during an election tend to feel more confident while waiting for results, said Sweeny, who lead a study in 2016 looking at the anxiety levels of Donald Trump supporters compared to Hilary Clinton supporters. It played out poorly for supporters of Clinton, the Democratic nominee to follow former U.S. President Barack Obama. Clinton supporters were found to be less anxious than Trump supporters. Today, that scenario appears to be reversed, said Sweeny.

“It does seem to be the case that among people supporting [Democratic nominee Joe] Biden and who supported Clinton, there’s an extra dose of trauma,” said Sweeny. “Because the polls [in 2016] looked kind of similar, that leaves a sense of ‘no good news can possibly reassure Biden voters right now.’ Nothing is going to be a salve.”


In the absence of a cure-all to calm voter nerves, there are ways to use up the energy accumulated by our “motivational system,” some of which may even present in an unconscious way, such as “defensive pessimism.” It’s a strategy of “gearing up pessimism and anxiety to motivate us to prepare for something,” like a big exam, said Sweeny. “If you’re laid back, that’s not sufficiently motivating.”

Bracing for the worst, a “relative” of the latter concept, is about considering the worst possible outcome to prepare for it, something Clinton supporters could have used in 2016, Sweeny said.

“Finding a balance between hopeful positivity and awareness that things may go the wrong way is useful,” she said.

More positive strategies include mindfulness practice and finding something that gives you a “feeling of awe” like a nature documentary. But Sweeny says the best advice for election night is a concept common in the game development world: finding your “flow state.” Find an attention-grabbing activity in which you can become completely “in the zone.”

“Almost anything can become a flow activity,” she said, noting that it should have two characteristics: it should be challenging enough, but not frustrating, and you should be able to track your progress toward a goal. “If you’ve got those two, there’s a good chance it will lure you into a flow state.”

If waiting for the winner to be announced is overwhelming, consider enlisting a friend to call or text with the news instead of “doomscrolling” all night and use your energy for something that is “bodily engaging,” suggests Markman, like playing with clay or painting, practicing a musical instrument, or engaging in a sport you love. 

“The more bodily engaged you are the more your entire brain has to focus on controlling your body,” he said. “Your motivational system doesn’t really engage with lots of different things at the same time.”

Silencing distracting social media and technology and getting into a game, or an educational practice like the language-learning Duolingo app are two simple options, suggested Sweeny. 

For her, the activity is something a little less conventional. “Data analysis really gets me there,” she said. Chances are Sweeny will be unplugged and crunching numbers tonight.

“As a Democratic voter in the U.S.,” she said, “This is by far the most stressful [election] I have lived through.”