Voting is your civic duty, but fretting about the election doesn’t have to be.
It’s been a long, hard, ugly election year.
With every nasty debate, cruel tweet, angry retort and red-faced political commentator, we the people feel less like proud civic-minded Americans and more like witnesses of a violent crime.
That’s only slightly hyperbolic. Living through an election year can actually be traumatic for some people.
“Certain messages in a repetitive nature—for certain individuals—will have a correlation with verbal abuse,” says Chris Berger, a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Foundations Counseling. “For a long enough period of time that will have an effect on their mindset. It can create a fight-or-flight response. From a psychological perspective, their decision making abilities can become compromised. They may begin making decisions from a place of fear or stress.”
Between the 24-hour news cycle, the constant political ads and your sweet Aunt Lucy’s surprisingly aggressive Facebook posts, it’s difficult to avoid getting caught up in the election’s frenetic energy and fear-inducing statements of economic disaster, immigration armageddon and climate catastrophe. You may begin to think the sky is actually falling. . .and taking away our jobs, too!
According to Berger, political stress is not deserving of its own clinical diagnosis. But for people with generalized anxiety disorder, it can amplify their symptoms, causing panic attacks or depression.
“For some individuals, politics will exacerbate the problems that are already there,” Berger says.
Even for the average citizen, elections come with mental health consequences.
“It can add stress,” Berger says. “The way we were built, we like consistency and clarity. When we add in the unknown, we lose clarity and consistency.”
The more unknown, the more stress. He says presidential elections increase anxiety and stress as well, and when elections seem more certain—when an incumbent is running or there is a strong frontrunner—there is more clarity and less stress.
That means this election season has been about as stressful as a Colorado caucus in a overcrowded middle school gym.
“In this particular year, we have new candidates on both sides of the aisle,” Berger says. “This year is unique as well because the two primary candidates have been really playing on base-level emotions. They are playing toward fear and playing toward anger. That campaign strategy, politically, is brilliant. But it will cause fear and anxiety that will linger until there is more clarity.”
Bob Morain is not your average political observer. He is the current chair of the Larimer County Republican Party and a two-time political candidate. He can preach about his concern for the outcome of this election, for the potential suffering, for the economic ruin that may come. But he’s not stressed. He doesn’t get stressed about politics. Instead, he focuses on being prepared for the outcome of the election and he tries not to let the messaging in the media upset him.
“The news media want everyone to think that consequences are immediate, that whatever happens will happen immediately,” he says. “The things people stress about, well, they would stress less if they realized the sky won’t fall tomorrow. So let’s not panic.”
If you are panicking, it’s time to take a break from the insanity.
“Just turn off the news,” Berger says. “Avoidance, in this situation, can help. I don’t mean being blind to the news or what’s happening in the world. During the political year, you don’t need to check, read or watch the news every day.”
Or three times a day.
Having healthy outlets and distractions will also help. Berger suggests “good ol’ fashioned health and physical coping strategies.” Have a balanced diet, get regular exercise and maintain strong relationships.
“Having social support is still the bread and butter of being healthy, happy human beings,” he says.
Berger also suggests re-engaging with an old hobby or finding a new one. Relax, get a massage, meditate, work on crossword puzzles and play video games. Importantly, laugh.
“Watch a favorite movie or old TV shows that bring humor into our lives,” he says. “Making sure we laugh regularly is very important. It’s a temporary release of stress.”
The stress may compel you to drink an extra glass of wine each night or pick up your old smoking habit, but Berger suggests otherwise.
“It’s very important for people to engage in healthy coping skills, instead of unhealthy ones,” he says. “Addiction behaviors, alcohol or drugs or gambling, those are all temporary stress release that can lead to long-term issues.”
No matter what you do, keep in mind that there are two stages of political stress. First, it’s about surviving the battle of the election season. Once the election is over, there are still many unknowns to keep you up at night.
“When the election is over, that first stage will dramatically reduce the stress,” Berger says, “but it’s not for another three to six months that we will see how they engage in running a government.”