Four days out from the US election, and everyone is feeling tired and emotional. It is hard to focus, easy to agonise, and soothing – if the volume of pain on social media is anything to go by – to share with the group one’s inability to function. This is not limited to people living in the US, but – as with the recent death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and ascent of Amy Coney Barrett to the supreme court – is felt by plenty of observers abroad as acute and very personal pain. People are, by their own admission, weeping, paralyzed, grief-stricken, terrified, frozen, nauseous and bingeing. You can’t turn it off. There is no escape.
At least this is the impression one gets after spending too long online. How we live psychologically in relation to the news is something we are assumed not to have much control over. You can be an ostrich and happy or that guy trapped in a feedback loop of conspiracy theories on Facebook – but nobody wants to be him. Or you can be informed and miserable, on which count not feeling completely dismantled at the moment is a dereliction of civic duty. Who runs the US affects the rest of the world, and it is not outlandish for Brits – or, say, affluent New Yorkers, insulated from the worst effects of a Trump re-election – to be emotionally disturbed ahead of the election. What remains curious is whether the sheer levels of reported distress are to any degree optional, or entirely related to the trauma at hand.
If I put down my immediate worries, I can, within about three mental leaps, get from Trump’s re-election to the ship sailing on climate breakdown, to the end of human civilisation, taking my descendants with it. The same goes for the domino run of panic around Coney Barrett’s confirmation on the supreme court, bringing with it the threat of reversals on abortion and marriage equality. These planes, always idling at the end of the runway, require a small amount of energy to get airborne, however, and with a bit of effort – staying off social media; narrowing my range of vision to the next 45 minutes – I can usually stop the thing taking off.
The question is whether I should want to. Distress as a form of empathy is imagined to be a precursor to action, the necessary spur to political activity. Denial, meanwhile, is imagined only ever to foster apathy. I’m sure this is true in lots of contexts, and yet when we are powerless to do anything, as we are at this stage of the election, anxiety itself feels like a proxy for Doing Something, and a useless one at that. Fretting on Twitter might offer solace, but it risks exacerbating the very thing it seeks to remedy.
And it’s an unreliable measure of anything much beyond one’s own temperature. The two sharpest responses I’ve had to an election were in 1997, when Tony Blair became prime minister, ending a Tory run that had lasted all but three years of my life, coinciding with the elation of graduating and the dawn of adult life, and seven years later, when George W Bush won a second term by defeating John Kerry. I was in Britain in 2004: the US election had nothing to do with me – or rather, it was less my concern than it would be in 2016, when Donald Trump became president of the country I lived in. But while Trump’s election was a terrible shock, I felt the disappointment of the Bush re-election more keenly. I was less politically jaded then, more inclined to believe things would turn out OK, and still recovering from the death of my mother. As in 97, my response to the election was more life than politics.
There are broader injuries that perhaps can’t be dodged. For Americans, Trump has delivered a psychological blow in the form of besmirching the very idea of their country, an injury overarching all others. And while, for reasons of self-preservation, it might make sense to skirt Twitter for a few days, you can’t entirely avoid these things. I used to sleepwalk – or sleep-bolt. It’s been 10 years since I last did it. But one night this week, I woke up at 2.30am in my living room, eyes on the clock, heart racing, trying to figure out how I got there and why.
• Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist