Amidst Pandemic, Election Stress Is at an All-Time High

Managing the psychological effects of the 2020 election

Amidst Pandemic, Election Stress Is at an All-Time High

For many Americans already coping with heightened stress levels because of COVID-19, the 2020 presidential election is amplifying that anxiety and uncertainty.

About 68% of U.S. adults said the presidential election is a significant source of stress in their lives, up from 56% who said so in 2016, according to a survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of the American Psychological Association.

As we head into perhaps the most divisive election in decades, inevitably there will be tensions, heated conversations among loved ones and potentially feelings of despair from election loss. Each can affect a person's well-being significantly.

For those feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and anxious this election season, here are a few useful coping strategies:

Dealing with uncertainty

«Uncertainty is stressful — the election, the global pandemic and social unrest are all adding to a sense of uncertainty in our lives,» Dr. Tania Israel, a professor of counseling psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told ABC News.

Avoid dwelling on things you can't control, the APA warns. When uncertainty strikes, people imagine worst-case scenarios. Break the habit of ruminating on bad outcomes. Avoid catastrophizing, and maintain a balanced perspective.

A person carries an umbrella and wears a mask at a polling station in Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing on Nov. 1, 2020, in New York.

«Remember you're not alone, if you're struggling — nearly everyone is,» said Dr. Kate Sweeny, a professor of Psychology at University of California, Riverside. «I'd suggest trying to get into a state of flow, completely absorbed in an activity such that you lose self-awareness and time flies by.»

Bipartisan issues

Polarization may be the defining feature of American politics in 2020.

«In recent years, Americans have started to fuse their identity with their political affiliation, which was not seen in 2016,» said Dr. Vaile Wright, a clinical psychologist and senior director of health care innovation at the APA.

In 1960, only 4% of Democrats and 4% of Republicans said they would be disappointed if their child married someone from the opposite political party, but by 2018, 45% of Democrats and 35% of Republicans said so, according to the APA.

«We have created an in-group and out-group situation, and we tend to dehumanize the out-group,» Wright said.

People wait in line to vote in the United States' presidential and statewide elections at a polling site for early voting in the lobby of the Kings Theater in Brooklyn, NY., Oct. 30, 2020.

Israel, the UCSB professor, added: «Some of the polarization is real, some is because the spokespersons for each side are usually the extreme version. In the media, we are hearing from the most extreme. The exhausted majority are not extreme. They are tired of the tone of conflict of the extremes and are checking our democracy, and that is dangerous.

When discussing political matters with friends and family, Wright suggests using «I» statements instead of «You» statements. For example, «I'm disappointed you think this way» instead of «You are disappointing.» Avoid name-calling, and «try to find out where they are coming from instead,» she added.

Said Israel: «Have political conversations face-to-face rather than -to-, where you can see the person as a full person, rather than a social media post.

Social media

«We curate our social media for the things we — as a result, we are only being exposed to information we want to see,» Wright explained.

Added Israel: «Keep political debates off social media. You might say things on social media that you wouldn't say in person.»

The APA strongly suggests taking a break from social media at this time. Avoid «doomscrolling,» the term for endlessly scrolling social media and reading potentially stressful news. Keep busy and stay connected to a network of people who can support you and vice versa.

Dealing with Loss

«Let the loss motivate you toward action — engaging with campaigns in any runoff races, getting involved in causes that are important to you — rather than defeat you» Sweeny said.

The APA suggests volunteering in your community, advocating for an issue you support or joining a local group involved in state or local elections.

Early voters queue up to vote in the 2020 presidential election at Temple Terrace Public Library in Tampa, Oct. 31, 2020.

Accept defeat graciously, and resist the tendency to keep fighting for a lost cause. Relationships between family and community remain extremely important, so do your best to stay connected and avoid isolation — it makes some people feel more vulnerable.

«It's important for our mental health and for our democracy,» said Israel.

Strengthening connections with families, communities, and organizations is the most important approach regardless of election outcome.

Mindfulness and what you do have control over

Another thing you can do is practice mindfulness, such as mediation.

Although not for everyone, if you're having a particularly hard time, now might be the time to give it a try.

«Even small doses of mindfulness practice can ease stress and reduce the repetitive thought loop that's characteristic of worry,» Sweeny added.

The APA also suggests staying active, accepting that election results may not be known on Election Day and embracing that in a democracy one thing you do have control over is voting.

Wear your «I voted» sticker with pride.

Yalda Safai M.D., M.P.H., a psychiatry resident in New York City, is a contributor to ABC News Medical Unit.

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Stressed out by the 2020 election? You’re not the only one

Amidst Pandemic, Election Stress Is at an All-Time High

More than two-thirds of U.S. adults said the presidential contest on Nov. 3 is causing major stress in their lives. (Photo/CACTUS Creative Studio, Stocksy United)

If you feel especially stressed and anxious about the contentious 2020 election, it’s not just you.

More than two-thirds of U.S. adults said the presidential contest on Nov. 3 is causing major stress in their lives, according to a recent survey. USC health experts have seen increased demand for support and counseling services since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. They expect the upcoming election will add even more anxiety.

“We’re already a bit overworked and tired now,” said Lara Hilton, director of the USC Center for Work and Family Life. “This is that extra layer on top.”

Thankfully, support is available to USC students, faculty members and staff members to help them cope with the uncertainty and stress of the 2020 political season.

Trojans have access to many resources to cope with 2020 election stress

At USC Student Health, counselors provide one-on-one sessions, group workshops and other resources to undergraduate and graduate students. Kelly Greco, assistant director of outreach and prevention services, encouraged students to reach out now if they are feeling worried or anxious.

“What we’re hearing that is very different about this election is that we may not know the results on November 3,” she said. “We’re going to have to sit and tolerate the uncertainty, and that is creating stress for many people.”

To help students cope, USC Student Health’s Counseling and Mental Health Services team is holding election stress workshops twice a week online through mid-November. The sessions take place on Mondays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. Students can sign up through the My Student Health Record portal.

Students can also talk about election-related stress and other mental health concerns with counselors through Let’s Talk drop-in sessions. The online meetups are open to all students, regardless of location. Students in California can also request individual therapy sessions for support and resources by scheduling an appointment online or calling 213-740-9355.

“This is a really stressful time on so many levels,” Greco said. “We are working really hard to decrease stigma and normalize the fact that this is a high-stress time and that reaching out for additional support can really help.”

Therapists from USC Student Health are also embedded in USC’s student equity and inclusion programs, such as the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs and the LGBTQ+ Student Center. These counselors often share students’ own cultural background or understand issues important to them.

“To feel a sense of connection and safety, it is important to have these discussions within certain communities that are impacted by policies that are on the table in this election,” Greco said. “For example, we have many international students who have been affected by different policies and changes.”

Similar programs and resources are available to USC faculty and staff members through the USC Center for Work and Family Life. Its monthly Thriving Thursday session on Nov. 5 at noon will feature strategies to overcome election fatigue.

Free and confidential services include support groups, one-on-one counseling sessions, coaching and department-level consultations. And a special well-being workshop hosted by the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences on Oct. 29 at 2 p.m.

will discuss how to have difficult political conversations.

Election stress can be intense, but here are some ways to cope

Hilton expects many people will deal with some level of what she termed “election stress disorder,” a phrase coined after the 2016 presidential election. It includes symptoms tension, trouble sleeping or concentrating, irritability, agitation when watching the news or interacting on social media, and difficulty with personal relationships.

Stress can affect people physically, emotionally and socially, Hilton said. But there’s good news: Mental health experts have found evidence that certain strategies can relieve that stress.

The first strategy: Focus on what you can control, Hilton said. Get a good night’s sleep, eat well and stay active. Limit your exposure to social media and TV news, take a mental break by watching funny video clips online or close your laptop and go for a hike.

“It’s really about getting back to the basics,” she said. “You will feel better if you get out, walk the dog, go for a walk, get into the sunlight.”

Greco echoed those suggestions, encouraging students to make a daily plan with a few goals they want to accomplish.

“All this uncertainty around the election and COVID creates loss of control and anxiety,” she said. “So, make sure you find structure every day and focus on what you can control.”

A second approach to managing stress is to engage in meaningful activities. For many people, connecting with supportive friends or family members can help them get through stressful times, Hilton said. And one meaningful activity related to relieving anxiety about the election is to vote early.

“Don’t avoid the task,” she said. “Procrastination promotes anxiety.”

Third, recognize that the election results might still be murky on Nov. 3, Hilton said. Accepting that might help some people better deal with stress as election day approaches.

“But if you think that is going to raise your anxiety, stay busy with the other two strategies,” she said. “Be empowered by focusing on what you can control — including voting — and let go of the rest. And if you need further advice, if you are having sleepless nights or heightened anxiety or stress, please call or email us.”

More stories about: Election 2020, Mental Health


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