Photo by Rūta Smith

Polling Pressures

More than two-thirds of American voters say the election has been a significant source of stress in their lives, a noticeable leap from rates in past elections, according to a survey published by the American Psychological Association.

The proportion of Black adults reporting the election as a source of stress jumped from 46% in 2016 to 71% this year.

“We are facing increasing division and hostility in the presidential election,” Arthur C. Evans Jr., chief executive of the APA, said in a press release. “Add to that racial turmoil in our cities, the unsteady economy and climate change that has fueled widespread wildfires and other natural disasters.”

During the 2016 election, much of the advice given to those struggling with election anxiety involved surrounding yourself with positive folks and getting out of the house. But thanks to the pandemic, solutions aren’t as simple as before.

“A lot of what we end up talking about is being comfortable with doing as much as you can, and I guess to some degree, trusting the process,” said MUSC researcher Christopher Sege. “There’s a big anxiety around, ‘Am I doing enough?’

“There’s obviously only so much you can do, and only so much control any one person can have, and that’s difficult, because it’s obviously very important to a lot of people,” Sege said.

Sege isn’t the only Charleston professional noticing the stress surrounding the election. Since half the population in a closely matched election is going to be upset with the outcome, mental health care providers have a lot to be prepared for.

“What I do specifically is evaluate whether or not a patient’s anxiety or depression is affecting their ability to function, whether that be by missing work, missing out on events or losing sleep,” said Dr. Sarah Coker, a psychiatrist at Roper St. Francis Hospital. “We look at multi-system approaches there.”

But clinical solutions only go so far, and can seem out of reach for some or unnecessary for others, if their anxiety isn’t impacting their daily lives in a significant way. So, it’s important for people to understand the root of their stresses and know how to cope.

Coker said the lack of that knowledge has led to a potential uptick in rates of stress and anxiety surrounding the election.

“We’ve definitely noticed an increase in anxiety and depression during the election due to poor coping skills,” Coker said. “There is so much out there due to the constant media and commercials — it’s harder for people to know how to step away.”

Sege echoed the idea of constant news and media surrounding the election making things difficult for those struggling with election anxiety.

“24/7 access to news and social media makes it much harder to unplug from things,” Sege said. “That becomes a coping strategy itself, knowing when to pay attention but finding times throughout the day to unplug and be okay with that.”

There’s also the added factor of a global viral outbreak as a compounding stressor on top of the election, Coker said.

“We are also in the middle of a pandemic, so a lot of people are already out of their normal daily life and routine,” Coker said. “They have even less that they could focus on outside of the election. They’re already stressed, and now they’re even more stressed.”

Add to that the growing polarization and division between American citizens. In 1960, just 4% of Democrats and Republicans said they would be disappointed if their child married someone with differing political ideology, according to a study by the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research. That figure climbed over 35% by 2018, according to another survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic.

Fortunately, there are general ways of dealing with stress and anxiety that can work to help folks through election-induced fears as well, Coker said. Just a handful of her tips include:

• Examine your daily life and routine. Identify sources of stress and of relief and calibrate accordingly.

• Shake things up. Make sure you aren’t stuck in a rut.

• Be sure to eat a balanced diet and exercise. Physical health and mental health often go hand in hand. 

• Set times to check in on political news. Very rarely do things that require your urgent attention come up; don’t get caught in the trap of constant attention.

• Find something uplifting to replace your stressors with. Go outside, listen to music, read a book or anything else calming that can take the place of anxiety-inducing activities.

Despite the difficulties for some, Sege is hopeful that this election can be an avenue for growth.

“I view this as, hopefully, a learning experience,” he said. “Going through this process this year, hopefully people learn from it and say, ‘Okay, this is what I can do in this process, and this is kind of my limit.’ That helps you cope with the next time around.”