It’s no understatement to say this presidential election has touched a national nerve. The hotly contested battle for the White House has polarized opinions, incited intense emotions, and induced anxiety. In fact, the American Psychological Association says 52 percent of American adults—Democrats and Republicans alike—report that this election is a very or somewhat significant source of stress. UR Medicine therapist Kevin Coffey offers tips to help quell anxiety and tame the emotional toll of polling day.
At this point in the presidential race, it’s understandable that people may be feeling the cumulative effects of anxiety built up over the last several months. Anxiety is just a fancy word for fear, and it’s reasonable to say that this election has created a lot of fear, no matter who you vote for.
People are afraid their candidate isn’t going to win, and they’re afraid of what they’re going to wake up to the morning after the election. Some are also dismayed by the ugliness of the election and the direction they perceive the country is going in. We all become a little panicky when we feel a lack of control over things, and that’s also been a common thread with regard to this campaign and election. And if you’re someone who already struggles with anxiety, the election may be especially disconcerting.
I think everyone can point to a way the turmoil has affected them emotionally. Opposing political viewpoints can strain close relationships, and lead you to judge a neighbor or co-worker in a different way. The campaign also put a spotlight on painful topics like sexual assault, the objectification of women, immigration, and race relations, and overall, there has been a troubling level of anger, cynicism, and exasperation across the country that can seep into your consciousness.
All of this can cause heightened anxiety, which is normal. However it’s important to pay attention if your anxiety or worry becomes overwhelming or starts to interfere with your daily life.
Anxiety levels are likely to peak on Election Day, so here are some suggestions that may help you cope:
See the big picture: No one person, including the president, controls the United States and can make major changes all by him or herself. Our system of checks and balances makes it impossible for the president to do much of anything unilaterally. And regardless of who wins, even the smallest governmental changes take a long time. At the same time, realize that you have the power to contribute to the greater good through everyday interactions and deeds. See something you’d like to change? Get involved, donate money, volunteer, use whatever talent you have to make the world a better place. We can’t rely on our leaders to do that for us.
Relish routines. Remember your day-to-day life is not going to change dramatically: Just as before the election, you’re going to get up every morning, take a shower, eat breakfast, walk the dog, go to work, pay bills, buy groceries, and go on doing whatever you might do that day.
Tune out: Step back from the unrelenting, stress-provoking election coverage. Even 15 minutes away from the TV, iPad or iPhone to read a book, bake some cookies, or look at the stars, will help you to gain fresh perspective on things.
Agree to disagree: Even best friends don’t agree on everything so embrace differences of opinion and don’t be afraid to talk. Sometimes avoiding conversation and harboring judgments and assumptions can create more internal stress than talking things out—if it can be done in a mutually respectful way. Our country was founded on compromise, and what a boring world it would be if everyone agreed on everything.
Just breathe. Breathe deeply from your core: In through your nose and out through your mouth. And breathe again. And again. Remember you can only control your own actions, not those of other people. Try to let go and let life happen.
Everyone feels anxious now and then. It’s a normal emotion. Anxiety disorders are different, though. They can cause distress that interferes with the ability to lead a normal life. This type of disorder is a serious mental illness. For people who have one, worry and fear are constant and overwhelming, and can be disabling. But with treatment, many people can manage those feelings and get back to a fulfilling life.
Kevin A. Coffey, LCSW, CGP, EdD, is social work clinical coordinator for outpatient services and a senior clinical instructor in the URMC Department of Psychiatry, in addition caring for patients in his faculty practice.