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In This Election, Anxiety Is The Front-Runner

By Donna Britt
Friday, October 8, 2004; Page B01

Last week, after days of going back and forth over whether to watch the first presidential campaign debate, I sat before the TV at the appointed time and turned to a favorite channel.

And found myself shaking.

So much hinges on this election -- how our nation will handle the war in Iraq, how we'll confront pressing domestic issues, how we'll be regarded, and dealt with, by a complex world -- that my decades-old symptom of tension had kicked in.

I'm not the only one shaking. In recent weeks, I've spoken with numerous people who can't bear to watch the debates or sleep on the nights preceding them. Some are boycotting all TV news and political ads; others signed up as poll monitors in distant cities to avoid the mental torture of watching Election Day coverage.

Few of us can recall a political contest so vital -- or one about which we have felt so anxious. "I'm stressed about it," admits Jayne Lytel, a writer whose husband, David, created the "ReDefeat Bush" campaign bumper stickers that can be seen throughout the area.

Unlike her husband, Lytel is no activist. Before meeting him in 1993, she wasn't even a registered voter. Yet the busy mom of two kids, ages 5 and 7, admits that she worries that "something bad's going to happen -- before the election or after." What if votes don't get counted? It will be like deja vu."

My friend Katy Menges is a homemaker, volunteer and staunch Republican in Dallas who feels "anxiety" over the election. Recently, Menges was reading the newspaper outside her daughter's ballet class when she overheard a pair of moms tearing into the candidates.

"These women weren't angry -- they were vicious," Menges, 46, recalls. "We've become so political that it's as if no one respects the office of the presidency." Burying herself in her newspaper, Menges fumed. Whoever wins, "I worry that we won't get that respect back for a long time."

Citizens behaving like near-neurotics over an election could use a good therapist. Mary Pipher, a clinical psychologist and the best-selling author of "Reviving Ophelia," would seem to qualify.

But when it comes to election anxiety, Pipher's situation might be one of "Physician, heal thyself."

Pipher, of Lincoln, Neb., keeps finding herself in e-mail conversations with people who've considered avoiding the debates because "our stomachs hurt when we're watching," she says.

This week, Pipher's husband, Jim -- whose mother and a close friend are facing serious medical problems -- asked whether it was "weird" that he woke up feeling less worried about them than about Democrat John Edwards's debate performance the night before.

Hardly, she told him. "He was thinking about the world our grandchildren and everyone we know will live in," she says.

I learned about Pipher through a funny, biting and, in some ways, deadly serious piece in the September issue of Psychotherapy Networker magazine, titled "An Assessment Report on Mr. USA."

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