It’s a presidential election year, which means Americans across the country are being bombarded with ads, news, telephone calls, debates, the results of the latest polls and passionate opinions from everyone. We’ve all got that one crazy aunt who angrily expresses her opinion on Facebook.
So far, the road to the election has been more like a horrifying parade of fights, insults and one incredibly bigoted white supremacist. With the harsh rhetoric, name-calling and pivotal issues facing our country, the election this year seems much more personal and much more emotional. It’s been an incredibly unpredictable campaign season.
And it’s not like we’ve got great choices: on the right, you’ve got Donald Trump, who wants to implement policies far more extreme than we’ve ever seen. He wants to launch a trade war with China, deport millions of immigrants, and even enact a total ban on Muslim immigrants. His plans would dramatically alter American lives in a far more sweeping way than the proposals of Clinton.
However, on the left, we’ve got Hillary Clinton who probably should have been indicted for her email scandal. Americans, for the most part, don’t trust her; between the emails and her tendency to flip-flop between opinions (is she or is she not in support of LGBTQIA+ rights?), can you blame the people who doubt her? She doesn’t exactly have a spotless record.
Engaging with politics is definitely a part of our civic duty; however, presidential elections can be emotionally exhausting. Stephen Holland directs the Capital Institute of Cognitive therapy, where 12 clinicians see more than 300 patients a week, and he said that “probably two-thirds to three-quarters” of patients at the institute cited concerns about the election as a source of stress.
“Among people who are not Trump supporters, we’re hearing a higher level of concern and dismay than I’ve probably heard in any election cycle, in 25 years of clinical work,” Holland stated. “Some of the highest levels of distress we’re hearing right now are coming from people who are involved and committed to the Republican party.”
Dr. Margaret Wehrenberg, an Illinois-based psychologist who specializes in treating stress and anxiety, explained that the more engaged a person is in the election, the more likely they are to become fatigued, anxious or depressed. That is, the more a person is watching the news, listening to the radio, reading articles, googling statistics, the more they are going to suffer from election stress.
Of course, we all need access to information about political candidates if we are to make an informed decision at the polls. News outlets are supposed to enable access to this information, but does the coverage need to last as long as it does? Are we being given the most accurate information via the best methods? I’d say no.
The media often sensationalizes stories and bait audiences with hyperbolic language to keep them engaged. Cable news outlets often repeat the same election information, video clips, audio clips and images over and over again throughout the day. This can make election stories seem inescapable.
Feeling committed to a particular candidate by not knowing whether they will win the election or not can cause a great deal of stress. However, spending so much time watching news that constantly plays on this uncertainty by speculating over who may win or lose, who is up by how many points, and what the outcome of debates will likely be only stokes the fire that is people’s anxiety over the election.
The most frequently suggested method to calm election anxiety is to disconnect when you can. If you’re constantly diving for your phone to look up the latest updates, you’re probably just fanning the flames of your anxiety. Disengage from the technology for a bit, from Facebook and CNN; this will likely ease some of your stress.
Anxiety about a potential outcome is completely normal. “If you are somebody who considers Trump to be a potential problem, I think there’s no way to not be living with some degree of anxiety right now. And if [his election] becomes more likely, I think there will be higher levels of anxiety,” Holland explained.
Worry or anxiety about a scary outcome can be healthy – it helps us to prepare for if and when that outcome actually comes to pass. The key to managing election anxiety is to differentiate between productive and unproductive anxiety. Productive worrying can push you into taking positive action, like volunteering for your candidate’s campaign.
Unproductive worry, on the other hand, will just circle around endlessly without ever finding an outlet to channel the energy into. So, if you’re unsure whether your anxiety is going to bring about productive action or not, ask yourself whether the worry is centered on something you can change. If it’s not, try not to funnel a lot of energy or thought into that concern; doing so would be unproductive.
As a whole, all any of us can do is focus on the present and make choices that may swing the election one way or the other, like donating to a campaign. Sitting around watching endless cycles of media coverage and worrying about what will happen in November won’t change anything.