I can’t remember an election that I didn’t pay attention to (or worry about).
But there’s something different in 2020. I’ve never felt so on edge.
This election has driven a wedge between my family members who disagree about who the next president should be.
I find it difficult to listen to the news, but my husband hates turning it off. Both of us are easily set off by upsetting headlines.
This isn’t unique to me or my family.
A lot of us are feeling the effects of the endless political news cycle and the stress it causes.
It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed, helpless, and anxious when it feels like the fate of our country is so precarious.
A 2019 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found that 56 percent of respondents felt stressed about the upcoming election.
A 2020 survey conducted by CARAVAN on behalf of The Maple Counseling Center, a nonprofit mental health organization, found that 52 percent of respondents believe their mental health has suffered due to the 2020 presidential election.
That number rises to 64 percent when considering Gen Zers and 57 percent when it comes to millennials.
Meanwhile, another recent survey found that 1 in 4 respondents felt rage and 58 percent felt worried about upcoming elections, while 38 percent said that it was affecting their sleep.
Researcher and licensed therapist Jason Woodrum has gone so far as to coin a term for how we’re feeling: “election stress disorder.”
While not an official diagnosis in the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it helps put a name to the symptoms many of us are feeling, and the effects these feelings are having on our personal and professional lives.
“This uncertainty that’s in the air for months on end can often manifest in a loss of sleep, irritability, anxiety, and depression,” Woodrum says. “While research is ongoing, it is easy to hypothesize that this known phenomenon can compound with underlying anxieties around the ongoing global pandemic, economic uncertainty, and social unrest we’re experiencing in 2020.”
It’s hard when things feel out of our control.
“With elections come large-scale changes and actions on a societal level that lie directly outside of control of any one of us individually,” Woodrum says.
On top of this out-of-control feeling, we’re riding a roller coaster of media sound bites and approval ratings.
“Media narratives and horse race coverage of polls exacerbate this sensation, with constant ups and downs related to the standing of the candidate of our choice. In many ways, it’s like watching a version of the Super Bowl that lasts a year as opposed to 3 hours,” Woodrum says.
Partisanship has been on the rise for a while. This year, it’s at an all-time high.
One 2018 survey conducted by PRRI, a nonpartisan research nonprofit, found that 35 percent of Republican respondents and 45 percent of Democrat respondents would be disappointed if their child married someone of the opposing political party. In 1960, this was true for only 4 percent in either party.
On top of that, 2020 has been… well, 2020.
“As if 2020 was not already difficult enough with election strain, the stressors caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and protests over social justice issues have only added another level of anxiety for many people,” says Varun Choudhary, a psychiatrist and the national behavioral health chief medical officer at Megellan Health.
“People are experiencing a significant change in how they live, work, socialize, and function in society,” Choudhary says. “Each element alone can be a serious source of anxiety. These multiple converging factors have caused many Americans to experience a substantial increase in mental health concerns.”
With so much going on but little within our power to change, it can take a toll.
“We can feel a discomfort coming into contact with our perceived powerlessness as it relates to this moment,” Woodrum says.
Acknowledge when you need help
It’s important to take stock of how your stress is affecting you.
“If you’re so stressed about the election that you find yourself unable to get out of bed in the morning, that’s a problem,” says Anna McAlister, PhD, an associate professor at Endicott College. “If you’re so stressed that you’re unable to eat and you can’t focus at work, or you find yourself bickering with friends or colleagues, these are signs that there could be a need to seek help.”
If you think you aren’t coping well, remember there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. Reach out to your primary care provider or a mental health professional to set up an in-person or telemedicine appointment to discuss your feelings.
Channel your stress into something productive
Sometimes all you need to discharge stress is to feel like you’re making a difference.
“Some ideas include making a donation to causes you believe in, registering to work the polls, signing people up to vote, or volunteering time with an organization you support,” says psychologist Meghan Marcum.
If you do volunteer, Woodrum says, “recognize without shame that you’re doing all that you can and be comfortable with that reality.”
Monitor how much news you consume
“Constant exposure to tragedy, political upheaval, and other negative stories may spark an interest, but too much time spent watching can exacerbate anxiety, insomnia, and symptoms of trauma,” Marcum says.
Take stock of how the news is making you feel.
“If you feel like the events of the evening news are too much, turn it off or stop reading,” Woodrum says. “We all get to determine how much news consumption is valuable versus detrimental to our own sense of wellness.”
Set boundaries around political conversations
A 2020 survey conducted by business research company Gartner found that 78 percent of U.S. employees talk about politics at work, but a third of those employees found the conversations stressful or frustrating.
Election season can also be challenging if you and your family disagree.
“How many people find this article about something they believe in, and there’s your husband, wife, or whoever at the breakfast table, and you stick it in their face — right in front of their cereal — and say, ‘Here, read this. It will change your mind,’” says Jeanne Safer, a psychotherapist and author of the book “I Love You, But I Hate Your Politics.”
“It never works,” Safer says. “And the reason for that is simply that we can never make the other person think the way we do. Just like we can’t make someone fall in love with us.”
If you do decide to discuss politics, don’t do it to convince anyone. Do it to better understand a differing opinion.
Safer says she’s only ever met one couple that had differing points of view but were able to share articles with each other. The reason it worked for them was because they were both willing to read something from the other side.
In other words, their conversations were about curiosity and friendly debate, not persuasion.
Maintain your boundaries post-election
After the 2016 election, Thanksgiving got shorter by 30 to 50 minutes because of family disagreements.
“People are really afraid because Thanksgiving this year is coming up right after the election,” Safer says.
If you’re afraid talking about the results will be too sensitive or cause an argument, don’t talk about it at all, she says. Set up ground rules beforehand so no one feels attacked or gets angry.
Be wary of social media triggers
Try not to react impulsively.
“When you feel angered and want to post on social media, take a walk or a short break first,” McAlister says.
Of course, she adds, you can post if you feel like it’s important. Just be ready for the fact that people may disagree with you.
If you’re not ready for that, or if you’re worried about how negative feedback might affect you, take a break from social media for a bit.
Don’t forget about self-care
Above all, take care of yourself.
“Create healthy habits to help you deal with stress,” Choudhary says. “Whether it is meditation, going out in nature, reading a book, or working on a hobby, take time every day to do something that makes you feel good. Make sure you get enough sleep and exercise, eat a healthy diet, and avoid using alcohol or drugs to cope.”
It’s important that you also prepare yourself for November 4 in case things don’t go your way.
Self-care will be important to help you deal with your disappointment and make plans for how you’re going to handle the future.
Elections are stressful — this one particularly so. If you’re feeling on edge, know it’s normal. Lots of people are feeling the same way.
There are also things you can do to minimize conflict and take care of yourself. Prioritize self-care first so you can cope with what comes next.