The seeds for this article began to germinate a few months ago, but I was reluctant to politicize this column. It was when a client informed me today that he was experiencing sometimes overwhelming anxiety and deep depression over the election, that I knew it was an important therapeutic issue to address.
In a recent article that ran on the National Public Radio (NPR), website, Lynn Bufka, PhD, American Psychological Associations associate executive director for practice research and policy offers her take on the phenomenon that takes some by storm, “We’re seeing that it doesn’t matter whether you’re registered as a Democrat or Republican — U.S. adults say they are experiencing significant stress from the current election,”
Television, newspaper and social media coverage seems to inundate the public. It goes beyond campaign commercials and signs posted on lawns. Negative rhetoric seeps into our consciousness, infiltrating conversations over lunch, in the gym while watching TV on the treadmill and at parties. During the three debates, Facebook was lit up with commenentary on who won, fact checking, as well as who was most believable and potentially presidential and who represented evil incarnate. Viewers on each side of the divide could offer up reasons for their perceptions. Hatred and vitriol spew forth and have caused rifts in families and between friends. Social media has been most evident in showcasing the disparity in beliefs, as folks have been ‘unfriended’ for supporting a different candidate. I do have a particular political bias and most of my face to face friends share it. A few Facebook friends sit squarely in a different camp. When discussions have arisen on the topic, I have monitored carefully to be sure that people are playing nicely in the sandbox. When harsh words and personal disparagement have been lobbed, I have intervened and asked that they cease. Admittedly, a visceral response has ensued when particular topics have arisen.
It was meant to be this way. Ted Brader, in an article published in American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 49, No. 2. (Apr., 2005), entitled “Striking a Responsive Chord: How Political Ads Motivate and Persuade Voters by Appealing to Emotions,” finds that people are influenced by high drama and intense feelings that campaign speeches, signs and rhetoric create. For some, it provides entertainment and something to talk about. For others, it is impetus to withdraw. Still others, like my client, find solace in connecting with people who share his political beliefs and canvassing in nearby communities, clipboard in hand as he tenaciously knocks on doors, encouraging those who open them, to vote for their candidate. He expressed that in the midst of traversing the streets of these neighborhoods, he felt discouraged, especially when a supporter of the other candidate began harrassing him. In spite of that, he intends to go out again a day or so prior to Election Day. He worries about the outcome, but realizes he has no control over anyone’s vote but his own. We agreed that although he might want to argue with those who are on the opposite side of the political aisle, he senses that it is futile.
In a community in which activism is commonplace; seemingly leaning to one side of the political spectrum, it came as a surprise to a long time resident of the area, how many campaign signs there were for the other party. She expressed that she finds herself needing to look the other way when she sees them and then calms her internal agitation by sending loving thoughts to those on whose lawns they are displayed. It is a momentary fix that prevents her from falling into despair or a frenzy of worry.
Although this has not yet occurred, she ponders the potential for asking supporters of a particular candidate what aspect of themselves this person represents. Although she might not be able to change their vote, she reasons that she may be able to help them alter their perceptions of the ways in which they interact in the world.
Election Stress is A ‘Thing‘
Steven Stosny, Ph.D, author of Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain Under Any Kind of Stress, refers to this phenom as “Election Stress Disorder”. He explains, “This election appeals more to the toddler brain — emotional, all-or-nothing thinking — with more of the toddler coping mechanisms: blame, denial, and avoidance. The body can’t distinguish kinds of stress very well, especially when blame, denial, and avoidance are used as coping mechanisms. If you get peeved at something a candidate says, you’ll tend to look for oversimplified solutions at work, drink more, drive more aggressively, and suffer the physiological and mental effects of general stress.”
Stosny is not alone in his concern. Other clinicians are seeing what might be considered an epidemic brewing.
According to the APA, Election Stress is a sincere concern:
- Poor Sleep
- Flu-like symptoms
- Aches and pains
- Expression of hopelessness
Ways To Cope
- Take a news fast.
- Refrain from talking politics.
- Enjoy the restorative power of nature
- Play with small children and observe how they are able to embody the carefree spirit that you may be missing.
- Engage in creative endeavors.
- Draw with an adult coloring book.
- Experience animal assisted therapy.
- Write about your feelings in a journal or a blog.
- Speak with supportive family and friends in a non-confrontational manner in order to express your feelings on the subject.
- Understand that a state of angst over the uncertainty of the results of the election is normal.
- Exercise self caring and compassion.
- Refrain from self- medicating with substances or elements of process addictions such as shopping or gambling.
- If you have a spiritual practice, use it to assist you in remaining balanced emotionally.
- Realize that whatever the outcome, you need to live in the presence of your family, friends and neighbors.
- Focus on what you want the next generations to experience, rather than short sighted goals and immediate gratification.
- If you feel yourself becoming excessively angry or agitated, take a deep breath and step back from a potential altercation.
- Meditate and focus on the best possible outcome.
- Vote your conscience.
One thing that has assisted me in coping is an activity in which I have engaged for the past few years. I am one of those people who stands on street corners, train stations, airports, town squares….holding up a FREE Hugs sign. I offer hugs to those who willingly consent. When I hug people, I don’t know who they plan to vote for. On October 15, 2016, I co-organized an event called Hugs Across America. In 20 cities across the country, people engaged in FREE Hugs events. The purpose was to bridge the socio-political chasm. Friends and I anchored the experience in Philadelphia, known as the City of Brotherly Love (and Sisterly Affection). It offered those of us involved a sense of hope and ideally those with whom we shared our common humanity, regardless of affiliation.