This year’s election stands to be one of the most hotly contested and deeply divided in modern history. As the rhetoric ramps up, as online and television ads dominate airtime and cyberspace, and as the propaganda machines continue to pump out questionable content on social media platforms, now more than ever, it’s crucial to protect our mental health. There’s no question that this period of American history is incredibly fraught and vitally important, and you may be struggling with both the short term and long-term mental health impacts of it.
The good news is that if you are feeling stressed about the impending election, you’re not alone.
A recent survey done by the Harris Poll for the American Psychological Association or APA shows that more Americans are losing sleep as a result of politics more than ever before. The study shows that “more than two-thirds of U.S. adults (68 percent) say that the 2020 U.S. presidential election is a significant source of stress in their life, a large increase from the 2016 presidential election when 52 percent said the same,” the release notes. “The survey also found that regardless of political affiliation, majorities say that the election is a significant source of stress (76 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of Independents).”
Dr. Steven Stosny, Ph.D., is a practicing therapist in Washington, D.C., the founder of CompassionPower and an author. One of his recent books, Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain Under Any Kind of Stress, deals with managing our emotions in times of stressful events. He also coined the term “election stress disorder” back in 2016 when the first election so clearly divided the country. He says that in the current era, it’s become even more acute than ever.
“Election Stress Disorder is s general anxiety, focused on the election not just caused by it,” Stosny says. “I coined the term in 2016 for that election, and this one is much worse. The 2016 election caused stress that was never resolved, and this election is a lot more negative. It’s happening on a backdrop of the pandemic, job insecurity, social justice confrontations, and natural disasters.”
Signs and symptoms of election stress
Everyone handles and manages stress and anxiety in different ways. In our current, modern world, there are plenty of triggers that can set you off during this period of uncertainty. Some of the common indications of this specific type of stress or anxiety can include:
- Getting less sleep
- Having trouble falling or staying asleep
- Increased irritability
- Increased general anxiety
- Physical indications like headache, stomach pain, and body aches
Dr. Stosny says that women tend to experience more somatic symptoms than men, though men tend to manifest their anxiety and stress through other emotions like anger or aggression, too. It’s important to notice when symptoms come up, because doing so can help you identify how to manage it. For example, suppose you notice that you become irritable with your kids or your partner after spending time on social media and reading political posts. In that case, you might consider reducing your social media consumption to counteract the effect.
“Social media feels more personal because the political messages are mixed with personal messages,” Stosny says. “Your phone is part of your body now, and it feels like you’re being physically bombarded by this when you engage with political stuff on social media. If your party or your candidate is attacked, your personal defenses are invoked, and our bodies don’t necessarily know the difference between, say, being chased by a tiger and being offended by a social media post. The parasympathetic nervous system simply goes into fight or flight mode in both situations.”
In addition to this, when your body is under extended periods of stress or anxiety, your immunity can drop, according to Stosny. “Prolonged anxiety and stress lowers your immune system and makes you more vulnerable to more serious illnesses,” Stosny says. “The human brain doesn’t do well when obsessing about anything, especially things that are out of our control. You feel powerless, and the powerlessness invokes anxiety, and we tend to blame the anxiety on someone, and it becomes anger or resentment.”
What you can do to minimize your anxiety during this election season
While it may seem like election stress is unavoidable right now, Stosny suggests that there are a few things you can do to ensure that you keep yourself healthy and grounded during this tense time. Here’s how.
Connect with loved ones (off of social media)
One of the best ways to counteract long-term stress and anxiety is to reach out to friends and loved ones during your anxious times.ADVERTISEMENT – CONTINUE READING BELOW
“The most important thing to do is connect to people you care about. Even if you have to Zoom with friends, that can really help. The worst thing you can do is isolate. It makes you more paranoid. Your brain secretes oxytocin when it is non-anxious and connected, so if you live with someone you love, hug them six times a day. Really, six is the magic number. It will counteract most anxiety!”
While it’s been challenging to maintain friendships during the pandemic, there are a few things you can do to ensure that you are properly tending to your connections so that when you need them, they’re there.
Get outside and moving
Dr. Stosny also suggests that there is magic in getting moving and getting outside when you’re struggling with election stress. When we exercise and spend time in sunlight our bodies produce hormones and chemicals that are proven to lift our spirits and change our brain chemistry, making us more resilient to stress and less anxious.
“Try to spend 10 minutes a day in sunlight and an hour a week in nature,” Stosny says. “And walk for 30 minutes. Exercise and sunlight are more effective than any anxiety agents, plus they have none of the negative side effects.”
Write down your racing thoughts
When we get anxious, our thoughts tend to run away with us, Stosny says. The act of writing our thoughts and feelings down slows them down and allows us to look at them through more logical perspectives.
“Anxious thoughts go very quickly and bypass the cerebral cortex or the adult brain. The faster they go, the less realistic they get. The act of writing the thoughts down slows them down, and then you can write what you will do if the worst happens. It’s a way to process the thoughts. Ask yourself what you will do to make your life better if the worst happens. It’s important to know that we have a greater ability to cope than we think we do. By putting our anxious election thoughts through a different lens, we’re able to cope with them in a healthier way,” Dr. Stosny says.
Treat everyone with respect
“Regard everyone that you encounter with respect and basic humanity. No matter whether you agree with them or not, they are human beings like you, and when you regard someone else with respect, your self-respect goes up.”
While it may be challenging to deal with friends and family members who don’t sit on the same side of the political fence as you do, treating people with respect and a little kindness can go a long way to healing the tremendous rift that’s present in current American culture, and it can help you connect with people in a meaningful way. After all, life is more than just politics.
It’s worth noting that not everyone will be respectful in return. Not everyone knows what it requires to have a real, good-faith debate, nor does everyone want to. Everyone, in general, is on edge right now, thanks to the state of the world. In that case, it’s best to cut your losses and walk away. It’s important to set boundaries around what you will and won’t put up with when it comes to dealing with election drama and the resulting stress. Remember, only you can manage your mental health. Understanding when it’s time to disconnect is crucial.
Put it all in context
One other thing that Stosny says is really helpful when trying to stay sane during the election is to focus on the bigger picture.
“To put this in perspective, fast forward to the end of your life. It’s not likely you will regret who wins this election, but you will regret not being as compassionate and kind to people you love and care about as you could have been. If you are obsessed with the election, then you’re not compassionate. Consider it in a broader context; your political opinions aren’t what’s most important,” Stosny says.
Consider the content you do consume
While you may love social media, it happens to be the one place where disinformation and false news are shared the most. Stosny suggests that you consider a media diet and focus on getting the facts from reliable and trustworthy sources, like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and others — not from social media. He suggests that whatever you read, it’s best to find one to two other sources to verify the story. He also recommends that you read both the side that supports your perspective and the side that does not to get a better idea of what is actually happening.
“The thing about election stress is that once the alert or anxiety is triggered, you look for threats everywhere, and all the anxiety-provoking things get bashed together. The election is in the news all the time, and it’s highly likely that your body is already in tension well before you check the news,” he says.
Get help if you need it
There are plenty of resources, both online and in real life, that can help you deal with the anxiety that arises around the election. If you or a loved one needs help, it’s best to check with a health care provider about finding the right type of treatment for your anxiety and stress. You can also find online providers that can offer support as we all go through this challenging time.