Election Stress: Where It Comes From & How to Manage It

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The general consensus about the 2016 presidential election is that it is more adversarial and intense for the candidates than elections from the previous several decades have been. But there appears to be a taxing effect on the voters as well. Have you experienced stress during this election season that seems to eclipse the stress of previous elections? If so, you are not alone.

How Stressed Are We?

As you may have guessed, Americans as a nation are stressed by this election, and now we have a large-scale survey to prove it.

Specifically, a full 52 percent of American adults are stressed by this election.

More specifically, this percentage of respondents recently stated that the 2016 election is a “somewhat significant” or “very significant” source of stress for them, according to an online survey conducted among the American Psychological Association (APA) by Harris Poll. The poll, which included 3511 adults 18 or over living in the U.S. between August 5th and 31st, is part of their annual Stress in America™ survey. It examines how stress affects the heath and well-being of American adults. (Read more about the findings of this past year’s survey.)

Because this survey was conducted in August and much has happened in the election since then, it is possible that these levels have risen since the poll was conducted. The full survey will be released in its entirety in early 2017. However, the APA released the election-related aspects of the survey early in an effort to help Americans find strategies to cope as this apparently widespread election stress continues or even intensifies.

Republicans, Democrats & Stress

It may appear that the election is more stressful for those of one party versus the other, depending on who you ask. This isn’t quite the case, however. In fact, a somewhat unifying aspect of the stress Americans are feeling right now is that it is felt across party lines.

“We’re seeing that it doesn’t matter whether you’re registered as a Democrat or Republican—U.S. adults say they are experiencing significant stress from the current election,” said Lynn Bufka, PhD, APA’s associate executive director for practice research and policy.

A majority of respondents from both parties feel this stress. Those registered as Democrats (55 percent) and Republicans (59 percent) have a statistically equal likelihood of saying the election is a significant source of stress.

Why So Much Stress?

While we are united in the stress we feel over the election, our feelings of divisiveness are contributing to the stress we feel. And much of this division is exacerbated by social media, particularly now that the sheer volume of content shared and discussed on social media is so high, as are frustration levels. Unfortunately, patience levels may be diminishing. 

Do you find yourself reading (or engaging in) political arguments around what you post or what others say? Many people even find themselves arguing with their friends’ friends—people they don’t even know—as part of their daily routine or witnessing such arguments among their friends.

We read or share stories that may spark fear or raise our frustration levels as part of our efforts to stay informed. This is becoming common and that is not a good thing for our collective wellbeing.

“Election stress becomes exacerbated by arguments, stories, images and video on social media that can heighten concern and frustration, particularly with thousands of comments that can range from factual to hostile or even inflammatory,” said Dr. Bufka.

The fact that much of this conflict comes weeks before the already often stressful holiday season really gets going can add stress as well. Imagine fighting tooth and nail with some of your family members who you may see around the Thanksgiving table; political arguments can now exacerbate that stress. You can't control what they say then, but you can control what you say and do now. Minimizing the stress and conflict now could mean happier holidays in the future and avoiding family holiday stress.

Social Media & Election Stress

Social media is already known to create stress in other ways, such as its tendency to encourage us to compare ourselves negatively to others. Not surprisingly, the survey revealed that social media also appears to affect Americans’ stress levels when it comes to the election and related topics.

Nearly four in 10 adults, or 38 percent, say that politically- or culturally-charged discussions on social media cause them stress. Additionally, those who use social media are more likely to rate the election as significantly stressful—54 percent of social media users are significantly stressed by this election vs. 45 percent of those who stay off of social media. 

Gender & Generation

There has been a greater focus on gender during this election, but there is equality among the sexes when it comes to stress. We are the same in that roughly half of people from both sexes (51 percent of men and 52 percent of women) find this election to be a significant source of stress. We differ more by age groups.

To be specific, 2016 election stress varies among generations of Americans. Fifty-six percent of Millennials (those born between 1977 and 2000) and 45 percent of those considered to be “matures” (ages 71 and over) are the most likely to say the election is a significant source of stress (56 percent vs. 59 percent, respectively). This is significantly more than Generation Xers (45 percent) but not Boomers (50 percent).

Stress Relief Recommendations

As an association of psychologists, the APA offers recommendations on managing the stress of this remarkable election. The following are stress management strategies that can help you feel significantly less stressed in between now and the election (several are helpful techniques for general stress management beyond November as well):

  • Limit Your News Intake. It is important to stay informed, but it’s all too easy to become overwhelmed by the news these days. If you find your stress levels rising as you devour articles about what is happening in the political world, put limits on your media consumption. This does not mean burying your head in the sand, but rather creating healthy boundaries in your relationship with the news. Read just enough to stay informed, but then take a break. This is a healthy tip to maintain even after the election. “Turn off the newsfeed or take a digital break,” recommends the APA. “Take some time for yourself, go for a walk, or spend time with friends and family doing things that you enjoy.” In other words, remember and revel in the rest of your life.
  • Maintain Boundaries and Respect in Relationships. You don’t have to forgo discussing politics entirely, but limiting the time you spend arguing about politics is a worthy goal. Conflict creates high levels of stress. So being intelligent and respectful about political discussions is a must. Limiting the number of relationships in your life that are touched by conflict can also minimize your stress levels. This means avoiding discussions that may devolve into arguments or even avoiding people who insist upon these arguments, at least for now. (Here are some strategies that can help.) Even with those who are like-minded, try to focus on other topics as well, particularly if what you agree on is how bleak things are. Talk more about the things you discussed before this election, things you enjoyed.
  • Don't Fall Into Fear About the Future. This can be an anxiety-producing election because there is much at stake. However tempting it may be to dwell on the worst that can happen, stress and anxiety about what might happen is not productive. Rather than indulging in anxiety or rumination, the APA recommends that you “channel your concerns to make a positive difference on issues you care about. Consider volunteering in your community, advocating for an issue you support, or joining a local group.” This may mean becoming more involved in politics on a local level where you may be able to make a greater difference—and perhaps friends in the process.
  • Maintain Perspective. It is very tempting to catastrophize what may happen if your candidate of choice does not win on November 8th. But America is lucky to have a political system that contains three branches of government to provide consistency as we elect new leaders. This means that America will go on in much the same way it has before. The APA recommends that you “avoid catastrophizing” or making things and the future feel worse than they really are “and maintain a balanced perspective.” 
  • Vote. Elections can be stressful in that we may feel powerless or unable to control the outcome of what is chosen, though it does affect us. Maintaining a sense of personal control can help you feel far less stressed. “In a democracy, a citizen’s voice does matter,” the APA reminds us. “By voting, you will hopefully feel you are taking a proactive step and participating in what for many has been a stressful election cycle. Find balanced information to learn about all the candidates and issues on your ballot (not just the presidential race), make informed decisions, and wear your “I voted” sticker with pride.”

General Stress Management Strategies

One hidden benefit of the stress that comes from this election is the fact that it is providing a reminder of the importance of stress management. The above are valuable strategies for minimizing election stress, but it is important to make stress management a regular part of your life as a way to safeguard your health and wellness beyond this election.  

This means creating habits that can help you build resilience toward stress. It can also mean becoming more aware of when you are feeling stressed in your life in general and knowing what strategies work for you to minimize the stress in the moment. 

Finally, identify other sources of stress in your life and cut out the stress that you can. Then, what you are left with is an amount of stress that is manageable. These are all ways that you can become proactive in your coping with stress and allow yourself to feel a greater sense of personal control and a greater level of hope for your future beyond the election of 2016.

Source: 
American Psychological Association Stress in America Survey. 2017.

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