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The majority of American adults say they feel it. The anxiety, the fear, the dread.
They feel it before bed and when they wake at night, at red lights and in grocery store lines, at desks and dinner tables. Quiet moments are no longer a refuge, but spaces to ruminate, contemplate, to grapple with how risky it is to hope.
Americans are moving through these final seven days with lumps in their throats, trying to quell the unsettling sensation of the in-between.
Nearly 70% of U.S. adults say the presidential election is a significant source of stress, according to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey this month, a dramatic increase from the 2016 election when 52% of Americans said the same. While Democrats are more stressed than Republicans, majorities of both political parties say the contest between President Donald Trump and challenger former Vice President Joe Biden is a significant stressor.
“People believe that the outcome of this election is going to have a serious effect on their lives, and I think beyond that, on their safety,” said Afton Kapuscinski, director of the Psychological Services Center at Syracuse University. “They’re concerned that some of the things that they hold most meaningful are threatened. Although the specific concerns do differ based on political leaning, the feelings that are coming up don’t.”
Many Americans describe 2020 as one of the worst year’s in memory, a litany of terrors and traumas – the pandemic, natural disasters, racial unrest. Some believe the election has the potential to erode the nation further, or begin to make the country whole again. The stakes feel enormously high, which is why people’s emotions are running high, too, experts say.
“Whichever side loses will still continue to feel like their insides are being churned, because they don’t believe in what the party in power believes in or what the president in power believes in,” said Jasleen Chhatwal, chief medical officer for the mental and behavioral health treatment facility Sierra Tucson in Arizona.
Election stress: The voting, the outcome, the aftermath
Americans aren’t just stressed over whether their candidate will win. Voters are anxious about filling out their absentee ballots correctly and about intimidation at the polls. Some fear election violence if there’s not a peaceful transfer of power, which Trump has not committed to.
Both national poll and swing state surveys show the race is tightening. While Biden holds a sizable lead in national polls and is ahead of Trump in 10 of the 12 states that could decide the election, Trump recently gained in national polling averages and in nine of 12 contested states.
But four years ago, the presidential election dealt a blow to the credibility of election polling when Hillary Clinton lost a race she was predicted to win. Now, many people are afraid to trust pollsters, adding an additional layer of worry and confusion.
Anxiety: Useful, until it’s not
On social media, many people are reporting high levels of anxiety around the election. Experts say anxiety is a normal phenomenon, and can be a useful response in certain situations, especially when the feeling is used to overcome something adverse or challenging.
“Anxiety often motivates us to prepare, or plan, to be successful,” said Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation at the APA.
If someone is anxious about making a speech, it’s likely they’ll practice more. If someone is anxious about the election, it’s more likely they’ll vote.
But when anxiety becomes consuming and prolonged, or when the source of one’s anxiety does not match the level of threat, it can verge on unhealthy.
“A good example is somebody who’s giving a class presentation and they’re about to pass out from anxiety,’ Kapuscinski said. “Yes, they’re being evaluated, so it’s not absolutely a zero threat, but it’s a low level threat in their public speaking course, yet they feel like someone’s about to murder them.”
Kapuscinski said clients in her clinic have legitimate fears around the election, but she also warns people to resist exaggerating the immediate consequences of a given outcome. Individuals need to say, ‘OK, is the way that I’m thinking about this consistent with what’s really likely to happen to me in my life?”
When election stress begins to impact basic functioning, such as diet and sleep, experts say it’s important to enforce limits. This can look like restricting news consumption, or assigning periods of the day as election-free zones.
“Invest your time in things where you do feel like you have meaning and stability,” Kapuscinski said.
If doomscrolling on social media is stressing you out, while talking to a family member is centering, do the latter.
15 products: To help relieve stress during election season
Preparing for a period of uncertainty
Everyone is counting down to Election Day, but experts say it’s unlikely they’ll be a winner Tuesday night. People need to prepare for uncertainty beyond Nov. 3.
“Without there being a clear end, we don’t know how long our stress response system will have to keep on going,” Chhatwal said.
Part of staying mentally well in the days and weeks ahead means developing a plan to prioritize mental health even if the election drags on.
Daring to hope
Hope is an important part of maintaining mental health, yet some Americans say they’re too afraid to hope. Wright says this is likely a “protective mechanism” in response to the 2016 election, when Trump’s unlikely victory shocked the world.
“It can be effective to set appropriate expectations. And one of the expectations that everybody should have is that there is the potential to be disappointed again,” she said. “But to the extent that you can balance those realistic expectations with a sense of hopefulness, I think that’s probably most effective.”
Decades of research show hope provides resilience against things like post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. It offers chemical benefits too, in the form of endorphins and lowered stress levels, things, experts say, make people more productive.
“People who have hope in therapy, people who believe that they … may be able to get better, actually do, Kapuscinski said. “And so, I would say that, in general, although there can be unrealistic ways of viewing the world, having a positive outlook is likely to make you feel better, and also likely to make you do better.”
Rather than focusing on whether or not to hope, it may be more productive to focus on action, shifting the question from “Should I hope?” to “What can I do?” People stressing about the election can volunteer, donate and most importantly vote.
“It provides you agency and voice, and to the extent that you can bring joy and celebration to even small acts like that, I think, can be very good for our mental health,” Wright said.
If the other candidate wins
If your candidate loses the election, Kapuscinski says try to avoid people who disagree with you in the early days of that loss.
“Nothing good is likely to come from those conversations at that time,” she said. “Think about, ‘Who can I seek support from that will be able to hear me and understand where I’m coming from at this point in time?'”
If you can’t avoid people reveling in victory, try to be curious rather than punitive.
“Make space for respect and to ask questions of people you disagree with, so that they might be able to help you understand better what the issues are for them, and also so they may be more willing to listen to you,” she said. “It’s a way of having dialogue about politics, but it’s also a way of being able to preserve a relationship and to be able to think about people as multidimensional, which they are.”
Resist black and white thinking
No matter what the outcome, psychologists say it’s important not to despair. When people get scared or angry, they tend to think in all or nothing ways. It’s healthier to pause, reflect and think carefully about what the result means.
In the final stretch of the election, and especially after, psychologists say voters should take time away from the pundits, the rants and the outrage.
“Break away from the news to do something that truly nourishes you … or feeds your soul,” Chhatwal said. “If you lose your health, none of the other work you want to do in the world will be possible.”
Calm your mind and body through meditation.
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