Feeling stressed about the 2020 elections? You’re not alone

Mental health experts share how to cope with election-related stress and anxiety.

By Molly Gluck and Katherine Gianni

Photo by Tiffany Tertipes on Unsplash.

There is one thing that Americans can all agree upon this election season: feelings of mounting stress. According to a new survey from the American Psychological Association, U.S. voters are reporting a significant uptick in their election-related anxieties. The survey found that 76% of registered Democrats, 67% of registered Republicans and 64% of Independents said that the upcoming presidential election is causing distress in their lives — a sharp increase when compared to the findings from 2016.

We spoke with Dr. Michelle Durham, psychiatrist and Professor of Psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine, and Dr. John Otis, Director of the Behavioral Medicine Program at the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders and Research Associate Professor at the Boston University Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences to share actionable advice for reducing and coping with election-related stress and anxiety. From limiting 24-hour news consumption, to engaging in healthy, rather than heated discourse online, these professors lend their expertise for navigating a tense political climate — both on Election Day, and beyond.

How is the election affecting stress and anxiety? Why is this election particularly stressful for Americans?

Otis: Presidential elections are a significant source of stress for many Americans because people may feel heightened levels of uncertainty and lack of control over the outcome. For the 2020 election, these feelings may be further exacerbated by the co-occurrence of the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns about the economy, natural disasters and social unrest. The constant stream of information and opinion facilitated by news and social media has further heightened feelings of stress and anxiety about the future.

Durham: The election is stressful and anxiety-provoking for most of us — if not all. There’s been so much racism, xenophobia, homophobia, things being said at the national level about people that are contradictory to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ In this vein, each of us then thinks, what is life going to be like for me after this election? Is this election going to pan out to be a safe place where I can thrive? There are so many real issues on the line — the right to healthcare, our nation’s COVID-19 response, freedom to choose who we love, and the right for women to take charge of their own health — to name a few. For those of us with intersectional identities, this election can be especially stressful.

What are the best ways to relieve stress and anxiety when it comes to something we cannot control on an individual level, like the election outcome?

Otis: Stress occurs when a person perceives a situation or event as being overwhelming, beyond their ability to cope, and threatening to their well-being. In the case of stress that is experienced prior to the election, people should recognize the importance of focusing on the things that they can control including getting enough sleep, maintaining a healthy diet, and engaging in regular exercise. Furthermore, engaging in catastrophic thinking, over-generalizations, and ruminating about possible negative events in the future can greatly contribute to feelings of stress which can have a significant impact on mood and physical health. Thus, rather than ruminating about the future, people can take time to bring their thoughts to the present moment and appreciate family and friends.

Staying up-to-date on the news can increase stress levels. How can we stay aware and informed while taking care of our mental health?

Durham: Remembering to take breaks from the media whether that be online or on your TV is going to be critical over the next few days. If you start feeling your heart race and feeling overwhelmed when reading/watching politics, then you should listen to your body. Think of things that make you feel better in any time of stress. These could include: listening to your favorite music, taking a walk (with a mask), calling a friend, reading a book unrelated to anything political, and/or watching a movie or show that is uplifting (i.e. a comedy, lighthearted).

Photo by Amanna Avena on Unsplash.

Otis: While many people may be tempted to stay up to date minute by minute on the election results, it is possible that the results of this election could be significantly delayed. Engaging in constant scrolling and refreshing for news updates can actually contribute to feelings of anxiety and stress. It’s like continuously watching the Weather Channel before a Nor’easter — at some point you just become saturated with information and you need to take a break. People should limit their consumption of news, particularly before going to bed, and make time for other activities that improve quality of life such as spending time with family.

How can we communicate about the election in productive ways with others, both in person and across social media? Do you have recommendations for effectively communicating about the election with people who have different political opinions?

Otis: Although freedom of expression is one of the cornerstones of our democracy, it’s important that we communicate our political views in ways that demonstrate respect for individuals who may express dissenting opinions. An angry political conversation may elicit hostility since one person may feel they are being attacked. If a person wants to have a productive conversation it’s important to communicate respectfully, to demonstrate good listening skills, and allow others the opportunity to express their own views. Similarly, rather than simply “blocking” or “unfriending” someone with a differing viewpoint, or denigrating another person’s beliefs, try to have a respectful and educational exchange.

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. Follow Dr. John Otis at @DoctorJOtis, follow Dr. Michelle Durham at @MdurhamMD, and Boston University School of Medicine at @BUMedicine on Twitter.

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