- Mental health experts say people are feeling especially stressed about this year’s presidential election.
- The feelings of stress are compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as economic pressures.
- Stress can cause mental health issues as well as bring on physical ailments.
- Some helpful ways to cope include talking to others about your feelings as well as unplugging from social media and the news.
In a little more than 8 weeks, Robert Moorehead may celebrate.
Or he may be packing to leave the United States.
It depends on who his fellow citizens decide should be president the next 4 years.
“Lately it’s been a general feeling of anxiety,” Moorehead, an associate professor of sociology at the College of DuPage in Illinois, told Healthline. “What if [President Trump] wins? I feel like I can’t even begin to think about it. It’ll freak me out.”
“Do we move to Canada?,” added Moorehead, who has previously lived overseas while teaching in Japan and said he’s been having election-related nightmares. “Back to Japan? Our kids aren’t little anymore… and I’m sort of saving toward a pension. If we leave, what will we live on when we can’t work anymore?”
Moorehead isn’t alone, and it’s not just his side of the political ledger that is feeling stressed over the November 3 election.
Compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, racial unrest, natural disasters, and a struggling economy, this election year is like none in recent memory as Americans try coping with problems many of them have never faced.
Choosing Therapy, a professional counseling service, recently published an article saying more than half of adults in the United States feel elections are “somewhat” or “very significant” sources of stress.
And that stress can manifest into poor health, according to Eric Patterson, LPC, a licensed therapist who authored the article.
“Any level of stress and anxiety can affect someone’s mental and physical health, but because this election feels so significant, the stress is higher,” Patterson told Healthline.
“More stress results in more severe impacts on the individual.”
And it’s not just one side or one polarizing candidate, Patterson said.
This year each side sees the other as more of an enemy than most other elections.
“People from all points on the political spectrum feel that this is a different election because they see the ‘other side’ as an existential threat to their way of life, their freedoms, and the very foundations of the country,” Patterson said.
“Extremism, on both sides, may represent a small proportion of people, but it makes those in the middle feel worried about how others will react come November,” he added.
“Will there be violence, anger, protests, and roving groups in the streets, or will peace and calm prevail?”
A story of stress
Kymberlie Ingalls is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area, who says her moods are greatly affected by what she absorbs on the social media platforms she needs to view for her job.
Her family is the political polar opposite of her friends, giving her a constant barrage from both sides.
“Given everyone’s stress levels this year, let alone the past few, maintaining myself has been pretty much a failure,” Ingalls told Healthline.
“Every day is a serious struggle. I actually can’t afford my psychologist right now, so it’s all on me. My doctor and I are working on how to control the effect from outside environments. Symptoms have included depression, physical pains that have no evidence or explanation, hair loss, mental fatigue. It’s brutal.
“Also, my work is affected because my anxiety has increased at the thought of writing or saying the wrong thing, and the ‘cancel culture’ that comes with it in regard to politics,” she added.
How stress affects mental health
People automatically associate stress with mental health issues, which can represent just part of the effect, according to Dr. Ashley Zucker, the chief of psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente’s Fontana Medical Center in Southern California.
“People react differently to stress, but if that stress or anxiety goes untreated over a long period of time, it can affect a person’s total health — mind, body and spirit,” Zucker told Healthline.
“Research has shown that when the stress hormone is activated, that ‘fight or flight’ response initially helps a person cope with the situation, but in the long run, it can impact their psychological and physical health.”
She added, “Emotionally, stress and anxiety can cause people to feel overwhelmed, confused, sad, or irritable. They may withdraw socially. Chronic stress and anxiety can also trigger physical health problems such as tension headaches, stomach aches, insomnia, and elevated blood pressure.”
The stress can also produce physical illnesses.
“Untreated stress, anxiety, and depression can also suppress the immune system, which can cause a person to get sick more often,” Zucker said. “Therefore, it’s very important for people to recognize the signs of mental health issues and get help or help a loved one or friend.”
How to cope
Beyond two sides of the political gulf, there are also nonpolitical factors adding stress to the 2020 election, said Dr. Julian Lagoy, a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry in California.
“This election season will be even more stressful than normal due to the current pandemic and the plan to have most people conduct mail-in voting,” Lagoy told Healthline.
“I remember being very stressed during the 2000 election and the Florida recount, and only imagine this election will be much worse, as most of the country will vote by mail.
“I think the election results will take longer than normal since normally it takes longer to count the mail votes than ballot votes. All of this will have a big effect on people’s mental and physical health.”
Lagoy added, “We need to have some healthy detachment because worrying about the result is not going to change anything. The most we can do is vote and know we did everything we could and leave it at that.”
While Americans don’t have as much control over the election as they’d like, there are ways to deal with the massive stress bomb counting down to November, according to Ken Yeager, PhD, LISW, the director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience Program at The Ohio State Wexner Medical Center.
“Across the United States, there’s been an increase in cases of depression, anxiety, suicidality, and substance abuse over the past several months,” Yeager told Healthline.
“One of the best things you can do is talk to each other. As you share with them the tensions and negative emotions you’re feeling, it’s important to also focus on positive emotions and try to neutralize the negative ones.
“Try to limit your exposure to news about the election,” he added.
“If you feel yourself glued to the TV or radio all day for fear of missing a vital detail, you’ll start to feel overwhelmed. Instead, engage in the mindfulness practice strategy to ground yourself in the here and now.”
Some medical experts suggest setting boundaries for political conversations. Self-care can also be key — eating healthy, drinking enough water, and getting enough sleep helps.
Dr. Ben Medrano, the medical director of Field Trip Health’s clinic in New York City, suggests being proactive with exercise, nature, and therapy.
“All of these have been proven to make our emotional and mental health more resilient, particularly in stressful times,” Medrano told Healthline.
“They may even make us more open-minded to opposing perspectives. For many of my patients, I find that this current climate is a profound opportunity to contemplate a deeper sense of meaning in their lives. This could be spiritual, philosophical, or scientific.”