If this fall’s presidential debates have left you feeling angry or dejected and the thought of finding out election results state by state on the evening of Nov. 8 makes you break out in a cold sweat, you are not alone.
More than half of U.S. adults who took a recent survey from the American Psychological Association reported that the 2016 election is either a “very significant” or “somewhat significant” source of stress. In addition, 38 percent of respondents said that political and cultural discussions on social media cause them stress.
Every presidential election cycle brings its fair share of contention and mudslinging, but the 2016 race to succeed Barack Obama as president has been especially divisive. Many Americans can’t help but be affected, whether they’re interested in politics or not. For individuals who struggle with anxiety or have experienced trauma, grief or loss, the stress of election night – and the tumultuous weeks that lead up to it – can be especially hard.
“This election cycle has been so contentious, and there seems to be so much unhappiness on both sides of the ticket. A number of my clients have described feeling uncertain and unsafe about what the future will hold,” says Samantha Klassen, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Don’t get overwhelmed, however. Election-induced stress can be avoided or lessened with a little intentionality. Here are some helpful reminders and tips from professional counselors for those experiencing election-induced stress:
Reoccurring negative thoughts can impede your ability to function throughout the day. For those who are feeling anxious this election season, Klassen suggests trying to refocus their thoughts on something positive, such as thankfulness.
“Take time to practice gratitude for the things that are going well, both in your life and in the lives of others around you. When you are able to remember and appreciate the small, everyday moments, you build up a reservoir of positive emotions which can help mitigate some distress,” says Klassen, an American Counseling Association member and doctoral candidate in counselor education at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi. “Learn to recognize what is within your scope of influence and try to engage in activities which give you a sense of power. Remember that you are in control of how you spend your time, what you pay attention to and how much mental energy you expend on the election.”
Don’t go it alone
Keep in contact with supportive friends, family members, neighbors or co-workers through the next several weeks. If you decide to watch election night news coverage, try to watch with a friend or family member. “Having a circle of support can help mitigate some of the powerful emotions that arise,” says Klassen, a child, adolescent and family therapist and graduate assistant for the Supporting Pediatric Adjustment and Resilience through Counseling program at Texas A&M Corpus Christi.
Unplug or limit your news and social media usage
If election coverage – and the partisan banter that accompanies it on TV and social media – is making you stressed or angry, limit your consumption. Read just enough to stay informed, or set a time limit for yourself. Also, turn off your TV, smartphone and computer at least 30 minutes before going to bed, says Beth Patterson, an LPC and American Counseling Association member in Denver.
“I advise clients to limit their expose to television and their devices, and to turn them off when they are getting triggered [and anxiety flares],” says Patterson, a grief counselor who specializes in working with clients through loss and life transitions, trauma, depression and anxiety. “Doing so is even more important in this emotional election season. Although social media can be a beneficial tool for bringing like-minded friends together and sharing ideas, we all need to be vigilant about using Facebook and other sites in small doses only.”
Take time for yourself
When anxious feelings start to swell, be intentional about doing things that you enjoy. Counselors call this “self-care.” Perhaps it’s a favorite hobby, such as knitting or listening to a (nonpolitical) podcast, going for a run or having a cup of tea.
“When you feel particularly tense or overwhelmed, take a walk, meditate, call a friend or read or watch something funny or inspirational,” Klassen says. “Focus on something totally unrelated to the election. … Rumination can lead to more tension and impact your physical health as well.”
When you are consistently anxious, “hearing more distressing stories [such as news coverage] can keep you stuck much like a hamster who keeps going around in a wheel,” agrees Maggie Kerrigan, an LPC and American Counseling Association member in Westminster, Colorado. “Instead, consider engaging with people or activities that you find uplifting. Perhaps you find beauty in watching leaves fall to the ground or noticing how light strikes a building. Maybe you can seek out friends with whom you feel safe and who value kindness and generosity. Let yourself be drawn to something that represents the opposite of what causes your anxiety.”
Visualize something better
Feeling anxious or threatened – such as dread about the future if your preferred candidate doesn’t win – can trigger the human brain’s “fight, flight or freeze” response, Kerrigan says. When this happens, do not blame yourself, she encourages.
Instead, “use your imagination to guide you as to what you would really like to do with the distressful situation. … Perhaps you can see yourself escaping to someplace that represents paradise, with just the right people, politics and environment,” says Kerrigan, a therapist who specializes in working with adults and teens who have experienced trauma, childhood abuse or neglect. “When you think of what you don’t like about what is happening, only think of a small portion of what is wrong, rather than going into a long litany of all that distresses you. … Remind yourself that having these [fight-or-flight] feelings does not make you a bad person. It is what your brain is designed to do when it perceives a threat.”
Realize that past trauma can resurface
This fall, news coverage and political debates have included the topic of unwanted sexual advances. This can dredge up painful memories for people who have experienced similar trauma personally.
“You may not be consciously aware of an earlier trauma, but your body is acting in ways now that could suggest that something happened to you [in the past],” Kerrigan says. “It may be unusually tense, you may be holding your breath, digestion may be difficult or you are less interested in sex. It’s not uncommon to go years without knowing about the harmful things that were done to you as a child. If you suspect that this might be the case, consider finding a therapist to help you make sense of how your body is reacting.”
Stay in the moment
The concept of mindfulness – keeping your train of thought on the here and now – can be helpful when anxiety flares. Focus on where you are and what you are seeing, smelling and feeling. For example, when driving, think about the sound of the engine and how the steering wheel feels in your hands, Patterson says.
Notice your thoughts and let them go, she explains. “It is so important to keep coming back to the present moment, feel what you are feeling and breathe,” Patterson says. “If a client is having difficulty turning off their thoughts, I advise them to sit and feel both feet on the ground and take full, deep breaths with long exhalations. Imagine the breath going down their entire body, through the bottoms of their feet and into the ground. This releases the energy of the thoughts in our heads. Taking a walk while concentrating both on your breathing and each step is also immensely helpful.”
If your candidate loses
Regardless of who wins the election, you can make a difference locally by getting involved in your community.
“Remember that there are ways for you to take action, politically and otherwise, to feel like you’re making a difference in the issues that really matter to you,” Klassen says. “Also, recognize that there are checks and balances in our political system intended to limit the power of the executive branch – and that state and local elections also matter.”
“As a grief counselor,” adds Patterson, “I believe we are all experiencing a sense of loss this election season: loss of idealism, loss of a belief in the high standard to which we hold our leaders and, for many of us, the impending loss of the current president as our leader. It is important to validate feelings of loss that clients may feel if their candidates do not win. I always emphasize that clients should find meaningful and healthy ways to cope with loss, such as volunteering, journaling, making sure to get plenty of sleep and having healthy eating habits. Calling on those you know can be of support. Also, it is so important to take breaks from feelings of grief or anxiety by watching a funny movie, doing yoga, getting together for a fun evening with friends, playing with pets or getting out in nature.”
If you do find yourself overwhelmed by anxiety, negative feelings or election-induced stress, reach out to a counselor.
If you find yourself in crisis, contact the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s 24-hour helpline at 1-800-662-HELP. Help is available in both English and Spanish.
The American Counseling Association’s 2016 election counselor resource page: http://bit.ly/2eDlO2t
From the American Counseling Association’s government affairs team: “Your Voice. Your Vote. Your responsibility.” http://bit.ly/2dDTu1z
Data and tips on election-induced stress from the American Psychological Association: http://bit.ly/2dZmM8l
Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.