This specific form of anxiety is becoming a different kind of pandemic. Here's how to cope.
On an emotional level, political elections are never easy-breezy — in a 2019 study, more than half of American adults reported them to be “somewhat” or “very significant” sources of stress. But as we near the 2020 presidential election on November 3, many of us feel our anxiety levels rising to new heights. Not only is it a combative political contest that is causing the country to feel more divided than ever — it's taking place during a health pandemic, the very direction of which will be influenced by who holds — or takes — power. The stakes couldn't be higher.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious or just all-around nervous these days, you’re certainly not alone. And your collective emotions might even have a name: election stress disorder, a term coined by therapist Steven Stonsy during the contentious 2016 election. (Which now seems almost quaint by comparison to 2020, doesn’t it?)
"One symptoms of election stress disorder is obsessive refreshing of your social-media feed."
Symptoms of election stress disorder include “obsessive refreshing of social media, reading news alerts to anyone who will listen and having a deeply emotional reaction to swing state polling,” the New York Timesreported. Another major sign: irritability. “If you get tense thinking about checking the news, that’s a sure sign,” Stonsy tells the Times.
Note, however, that "election stress disorder" isn't a officially recognized clinical disorder in the the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) — the gold-standard of psychological disorders. Instead, it's a grouping of symptoms that allows people to recognize that they might not be processing the current events in the healthiest way.
Your Brain on Election Stress
“Essentially, stress is our bodies' way of letting us know that we are experiencing too much,” explainsLia Avellino, LCSW, Director of Head & Heart at THE WELL. “And boy, is all of this too much!”
As Charlotte Margulies, LCSW, co-founder of Aspen Alliance Counseling, explains, stress of any kind creates a surge of hormones in the body, including adrenaline and cortisol, which cause us to struggle to emotionally regulate and thrust us into "fight, flight or freeze" response. This manifests in different ways in different individuals, which explains why some people become action-driven and frantic (fight), some want to turn away and flee (flight) and others tend to feel paralyzed by inaction (freeze) when stressed.
"When we're under high stress and constantly exposing ourselves to stressors like election news, our internal alarm system — governed by the amygdala — takes over, narrowing our window of tolerance, or our ability to cope," Margulies notes. In other words, it won't take much to push us over the edge.
Also, humans feed off the energy of others — even if it's virtual, Margulies notes. So watching that presidential debate, full of interruptions and vitriol, is guaranteed to take a toll on your own internal alarm system.
There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding this particular election, too, which provides fertile ground for anxiety to thrive, Avellino notes. You might be asking yourself, “Am I exposing myself to health risks by voting in person? Does it even matter if I vote? Will my vote be counted? What happens if ______ wins (or loses)? What does that mean for my well-being and my family?”
“Not only is the election bringing up stress for all the reasons listed above, but for many people, this is a race they feel their lives depend on,” Avellino asserts. Case in point: Activist Adrienne Maree Brown recently said, "This is not an election year, it's a genocide intervention era," referring to the Black Lives Matter movement and the dangerous systemic racism many believe has been fueled by the Trump administration.
Finally, this increase in stress can impact our ability to act. “Sometimes high-stakes situations can kick our decisiveness into high gear, but for some of us, they can also make us feel paralyzed and immobile, making it hard for us to do what we need to do,” Avellino notes.
How to Reduce Election Stress
While feeling stressed and anxious during times like these might be normal, it’s not exactly comfortable. Fortunately, there are many tactics you can employ to feel better — from self-care strategies to proactive steps you can take to get out the vote. Here are a few:
Be selective about your information sources — and when you consume them
You don't have to watch the news all day, or watch it before a meeting when you're feeling rushed and flustered, Avellino reminds us. Instead, "identify times of the day or week that have enough space for you to actually take in what you're reading and watching," she suggests. Stonsy echoes this advice in the Times: "What I do for myself, and I recommend to clients, is I check it three times a day."
Also, take note of how different news sources affect you on a physiological level, Margulies recommends. Does watching debates make you tense up, grind your jaw or clench your fists? Maybe that's a sign that you should turn off the TV and tune into the calmer next-day coverage instead — or even better, read about it instead of watch. You might also want to "consider turning to direct sources that you trust and provide clear information on action steps you can take," suggests Avellino. "This can make you feel not like a passive receiver, but rather an empowered agent of change."
Lastly, if you're feeling overwhelmed, Avellino recommends avoiding constantly updating streams such as Twitter and Facebook, which may be hard for your nervous system to calibrate.
Make a list of things that nourish you
Consider this your own personal "self-care menu" — a personalized list of what makes you feel good right now, even in the midst of a stressful moment. "Post it on your refrigerator and look at it when you are feeling overwhelmed, so you don't have to think about coming up with ideas to help you cope," Avellino suggests. "Add things that feed different parts of you, that spark self-compassion, that help you feel strong, that enable you to connect to your intuition, that provide way for play, for rest, for stillness, for movement and dance."
Here's how to practice self-care, even during the most hectic times.
"Our feelings definitely matter right now, but our actions matter more," Avellino reminds us. "Consider the local issues and candidates that you are passionate about, do your research, share with your friends and post about them."
Jamil Favors, a lawyer and activist in Atlanta, GA, says that he posts daily on social media about voting, leading up to the election, which helps him cope with stress. "I post a different voting fact on Instagram and Facebook every day," he says. "If we all just helped one person to vote, imagine the impact we could make."
And no fact or tip is too small, Favors reminds us. "A doctor once told me she'd never voted before — she didn't think her vote mattered," he recalls. "So not everyone is as knowledgeable as you'd think — you just never know."
Favors also makes a point to keep it nonpartisan on social media. The reason: "I truly believe that the way to our future is to empower everyone to have a voice. If I try to silence people, then I'm accusing others of doing the same thing."
Want to help get out the vote? Check out this article for more ways you can impact the election, including resources, sites and organizations to volunteer with.
Find your "commiserating counsel"
"Identify a few trusted people that you can remain in contact about regarding the election," suggests Avellino. "Together, you can commiserate, process and ask questions, but also hold one another accountable to staying active in the voting process of local and national issues."
Stosny, the therapist who cointed "election stress disorder," agrees that connection is a great antidote to election stress. "That’s connection to friends, family, communities who share values, and that can be work, school, professional communities, neighborhoods, religious community," he tells the Times. "That gives them a little oxytocin. It’s a hormone that calms anxiety and makes you feel less paranoid, more trusting of each other."