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Election Stress Getting To You? 4 Ways To Keep Calm

The uncertainty is getting to us: A majority of Americans report that the election is stressing them out.
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The uncertainty is getting to us: A majority of Americans report that the election is stressing them out.

With Election Day just around the corner, many Americans are on edge. Nearly 70% of respondents said the elections are a significant source of stress, according to a survey out this month from the American Psychological Association.

The survey also found that a majority — 77% — are worried about the country's future, says Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association. "Seventy-one percent said that this is the lowest point in our nation's history that they can remember."

The bleak mood takes many forms. For Adrienne Deckman, a Democrat, the panic attacks started after the 2016 elections. "I was hypervigilant and with a rapid heartbeat and palpitations," says the 67-year-old lawyer, who lives outside Cleveland. "I couldn't sleep, and I was just, like, highly distracted all the time."

The panic attacks are back with Election Day approaching, she says. The social isolation because of the coronavirus pandemic has also had an impact.

"When you're isolated, you dwell more on the things that bother you the most," says Deckman. "So it does have a compounding effect."

A bipartisan problem

Panicking about politics is a bipartisan experience, says the APA's Wright. "It cuts across party lines, where we see the majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents reporting high levels of stress related to the upcoming election," she says.

"Everyone seems so stuck on their brand of what they think is right," says Cassandra Dietman, an independent in Mountlake Terrace, Wash. "Seeing everyone just shut down and not listen to each other and not sit down and have conversations with each other, it's really disheartening,"

Dietman says she has noticed she's more irritable lately — and she's having trouble sleeping.

"Definitely as things have ramped up, I have noticed I have a headache I cannot shake," says Beck Johnson, who identifies as transgender/nonbinary and directs a nonprofit program for LGBTQ people in a rural Oregon community.

Johnson, who admits to spending time "doom-scrolling on Twitter," says, "It can be really hard to concentrate on anything when there's just this torrential, constant downpour of news that's just changing all of the time, and it doesn't really ever seem to be anything good."

Johnson, Deckman and others feel worn out by the current political climate. "I'm tired of people screaming at each other in parking lots and threatening each other and spitting on each other," says Deckman.

Gene TousSaint, a member of the Fairfax County Republican Committee, in Virginia, shares the sentiment. "I'm concerned that the country needs healing, because the climate is rather foul at times," he says. "We're all human, you know. We're really one human race. ... We should be way more unified than we are."

While he's hopeful about the presidential race, TousSaint admits that he sometimes gets stressed. "Every now and then, I get a little stomach tie up," he says. "If [the election] is contested, I am concerned that we could have upheaval."

Ways to cope with the stress

Uncertainty really gets to us, says Lynn Bufka, a psychologist with the APA. "What causes stress and uncertainty is when things feel out of our control, when they seem like we don't know what's going to happen," she says.

A good way to cope with all the unknowns is to start by managing our expectations, says Bufka. And then focus on the big picture. Here's how.

1. Prepare mentally for delayed results

First of all, expect delays in election results. "The reason that's important is mentally, if we're expecting a clear answer and we don't have it, that just extends the uncertainty for us," she says.

It could be days or a couple of weeks before we have a clear answer.

Then, says Bufka, plan how you will spend the time waiting for results. If watching TV, scanning the news, stresses you out, don't do it. Instead, do something that brings you joy: for example, taking a physically distanced walk with a friend, going for a bike ride or reading a book.

"Find things that tend to keep you less distressed and less overwhelmed, and make a plan to do those things," she says.

Planning ahead reduces uncertainty, she says, which in turn makes us calmer.

2. Double down on stress-reducing habits

There are also some simple, healthy habits that are known to buffer us against stress, says Wright.

"We need to be eating healthy. We need to really be getting the right amount of sleep," she says. "We need to be staying active. That can mean even just going for a walk. And we need to maintain those social connections."

3. Replace scrolling with something nourishing

It helps to unplug from news and devices every now and then, Wright says. "We need to know what's going on, but we don't need the late-breaking news every second of the day," she says. "We know that that connection to our devices ... a constant connection to information, actually drives up our stress levels."

That's what Dalyn Allen, a 30-year-old data analyst based in Baltimore, did when his stress levels soared this year. He noticed he was feeling some despair and starting to become irritable.

"I kind of backed away from news slowly but surely [to] kind of give myself some peace of mind and to kind of focus on what I can do to prepare myself for either outcome," says Allen.

He has been reading books, listening to more music and investing in his personal relationships.

"I talk to my family, friends, give them calls, check-ins, calling people for a birthday instead of getting a text," says Allen. "That's been really helpful for me to kind of manage that stress."

4. Look for signs of hope

The new survey also found that the majority of Americans do still feel hopeful despite their stresses.

For TousSaint, one sign of hope was Thursday's debate. "I think [Thursday's] debate was very civil. It wasn't ugly, and sometimes during the discourse, you could see these two leaders were actually communicating with each other," he says. " The civility between those two leaders [Thursday] gives me hope."

As for Allen, who is Black, he says the recent public outcry against racism, white supremacy and police brutality has given him hope.

"I was inspired to see that so many other people who really want to speak against that and speak publicly," he says. "They gave me the hope [that] this fight isn't over yet."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.