The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Feeling anxious ahead of the debate? Here’s how to cope with ‘Election Stress Disorder.’

Donald Trump speaks after winning the South Carolina Republican presidential primary during a campaign watch party in Spartanburg, S.C., on Feb. 20. Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post) Hillary Clinton speaks after winning the Democratic caucus in Nevada on Feb. 20. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

By now it has been well documented that this presidential election cycle has had a particularly negative effect on Americans’ mental health. As far back as March, before Donald Trump had even locked up the Republican nomination, The Washington Post ran a front-page article about “Trump Anxiety,” quoting psychologists, and even a masseuse, who discussed how frequently their clients brought him up.

In that story, Amanda Long, a massage therapist in Arlington, Va., was quoted as saying, “It stresses me out to listen to it. I can’t give you a good massage if I’m grabbing your shoulders like Donald Trump’s orange face.”

It has gotten so bad that Steven Stosny, a therapist in suburban Washington, has even characterized what he’s seeing in patients as “Election Stress Disorder.”

The unease seems to be permeating every facet of our lives, from relationships to jobs. An American Psychological Association survey released Sept. 14 found that about 1 in 4 American workers reported feeling less productive and more stressed at their jobs because of political discussions there. And these feelings of discontent were consistent regardless of political party affiliation or ideology.

In August, a Washington Post-ABC News poll asked registered voters whether a President Clinton or a President Trump made them anxious. Just over 50 percent said Clinton made them anxious and 70 percent said Trump did. Those results are identical to ones from a January poll, when the same question was asked, which shows how long people have been grappling with this anxiety.

But now, after nearly two years, the campaign is finally in its home stretch. The attention to it, however, will only intensify in these final six weeks. Monday night’s first presidential debate, which is expected to draw 100 million viewers, will be a central conversation topic among co-workers, family and friends. It will fill your social media and lead every news source.

So, if there’s no way to avoid the campaign between now and Nov. 8, is there at least a way to cope without damaging our relationships, our careers and our health?

We posed the question to Stosny, who said he has been talking his patients through their Election Stress Disorder. He assured us that there are ways to endure it, but said it takes some real mental effort to rise above it.

You’ve coined the term Election Stress Disorder. Can you define how that manifests? How do you know if you have it?

On the surface, if feels like irritability and resentment, covering up anxiety and a sense of powerlessness. It creates a tendency to blame, oversimplify and devalue other perspectives. If you listen to political stories on the radio while driving, you’re likely to drive more aggressively. At work, it will be harder to concentrate without blaming co-workers or supervisors. At home you won’t be as sweet to your kids as you might otherwise be. You’ll be tempted to drink more than usual. It’s hard to tell that you have it — ask your spouse and kids if they’ve noticed a difference.

If you’re driving and you’re listening to political news, look down at the speedometer you’re probably going 15 miles over, or if there’s too much traffic for that, you’re probably tailgating. Low-grade anger activates every muscle group. If you get irritated at something the jerk on the radio says, it’s a general central-nervous-system response.

Now, every presidential election cycle is stressful, but this one feels particularly so. Other than the obvious reasons that the two major-party candidates are deeply disliked, what else do you attribute that to?

This one has more personal vitriol than usual, compounded by 24-hour media and social media that make the stressful comments ubiquitous. It’s an election where you’re likely to be against something rather than for something. To be against something you need anger, adrenaline, confirmation bias (seeing only what you believe) and a desire to punish. Being for something generates passion and a desire to make things better.

You say you’ve noticed with the couples you counsel that they take out their frustrations with politics on each other. Can you describe why and how this happens? How do you know the election is a cause?

Most therapists will agree that they began seeing more hostility in couples since the election cycle began. Research shows that emotion is both modeled by authority figures and highly contagious. (If someone comes into work resentful in the morning, by lunchtime everyone who can’t avoid that person is resentful.) Couples are now more likely to demand validation and submission from each other rather than reconciliation. They seek to prevail more than understand and to see each other as opponents rather than teammates. They’re more likely to attribute disagreement to a character flaw in the partner.

How do you counsel them to stop letting the political climate influence their relationships?

Focus on the kind of partners and parents they most want to be and let their deeper values guide them, rather than negative feelings and caustic remarks downloaded from their environment.

Is there a cure for Election Stress Disorder? Particularly are there ways people can calm themselves down over the next six weeks?

Our politics appeal to the Toddler Brain, which is self-obsessed, impulsive, intolerant, blaming, oversimplifying, thinking in terms of “mine!” and “no!” We invoke the Adult Brain by asking how we can improve the situation [rather than whom to blame it on], trying to see other perspectives, appreciating complexity, getting in touch with deeper, more humane values, recognizing that we can’t feel valuable while devaluing someone else. If feelings are dominant, focus on how you would like to feel.

So, are there concrete ways to do this?

It does take mindfulness. Underlying all of that (anxiety) is powerlessness. … The rule (for enhancing) power is focus. Focus on what you can control. Unfortunately, negative emotions have more salience than positive ones. Our brain gives them priority. If it’s on automatic pilot you’re going to get sucked into it.

Doing anything for anyone else can raise your self value. I just read volunteerism fell below 25 percent last year for the first time ever; that is partly because of the powerlessness. Just do something selfless to help someone else and you’ll feel much better. You’ve got to serve other people to be happy. Do something that you think is benefiting someone else.

[Once] you get control of your life, once you’re in the habit of seeing how can I improve this, your brain starts doing it naturally.

The debate Monday night promises to be contentious. How can people keep their Election Stress Disorder in check while watching?

Here’s what I advise clients: Pretend you’re a government official who must advise both candidates on what is best for the country, regardless of how you feel about them personally. When they deviate, think of how you can respectfully advise them to do better rather than condemn what they’ve done. As Gandhi said, be the change you want to bring into the world. You never have to react to a jerk like a jerk.

Before it starts, understand that the format is given to oversimplification, soundbites and evasiveness. Be aware that you love your family and friends and they love you.

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