Is the election stressing you out? You’re not alone: The American Psychological Association found that over 50 percent of U.S. adults, regardless of party affiliation, felt very or somewhat stressed by the election. (In fact, the APA found Democrats and Republicans were equally likely to say the election is a significant source of stress.)
Some women are finding themselves re-traumatized by the leaked Access Hollywood tape in which Donald Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women. These stories have, for many women, recalled harassment and abuse they experienced in the past. Even First Lady Michelle Obama told a crowd in New Hampshire that the comments from the tape have “shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted.”
Even children (and parents of children) are traumatized, as kids are taunted at school with threats of deportation should Trump win on Tuesday.
We are so, so close to the end of this election. And yet it feels so far away. How can we get through this home stretch without letting stress totally destroy us? To find out, I turned to the experts: psychologist and stress researcher David Krantz, and Rutgers University professor of sociology Deborah Carr, who is also the author of Worried Sick: How Stress Hurts Us and How to Bounce Back.
The stress is real
“This is the most stressful election I recall in my lifetime,” said Carr, who chalks up some of that stress to “the fact that the candidates are so extremely different from one another. Oftentimes people think, ‘whoever is voted in as president, it might not matter that much for our everyday lives. Even if we don’t support the person that gets in, we have a system of checks and balances. Everything will be okay.’ But because Trump is so far beyond what a typical political candidate is like, and his views are so extreme and hateful and divisive, his possible election could change the way we live. And I think that uncertainty of truly not knowing what kind of havoc might lie in our nation’s future is very stressful.”
“Even those of us who tend to be fairly calm are angry all the time when we see [Trump] speak,” said Carr. “A lot of it is rooted just in the injustice. He generates hate, he fuels hate, and when we see other people being treated cruelly — when we see women being demeaned and handicapped people being demeaned — it shakes our moral core, and we can’t help but be angry about the fact that he’s spewing this kind of hatred and that an estimated 41 percent of the United States supports a person who spews hate. And oftentimes these could be people we know… Families are being divided. There are tremendous rifts. There are daily life effects.”
“Families are being divided. There are tremendous rifts. There are daily life effects.”
Carr, in case it isn’t obvious, identified herself as a Clinton supporter; Krantz keeps his leanings to himself. From a stress-inducing perspective, he said, this election “is unprecedented. [If someone is] anticipating horrible consequences if one or the other person wins, what do you do?”
“Clearly, there’s an enormous amount of anticipatory distress,” Krantz said, and “a lot of it comes from demonizing of the other side, and real fear of what’s going to happen if the wrong candidate wins. And mixed in with this anxiety and the stress is anger.”
Figure out your coping style
In psychological terms, Krantz explains, there are “active copers” — “Do-something-about-it-types,” he said — and “emotion-focused copers,” who “do things to lessen the amount of anxiety and distress they have, rather than directly act.”
For active copers, this last day-and-a-half before the election presents a unique challenge. “Other than working for your candidate and voting, there really isn’t any action a person can take to alter the outcome or prepare for it, which makes it a very difficult situation,” said Krantz. For starters, “Voting is very important. It gives people a sense of having done something to further the outcome they want.”
If you can volunteer for the candidate of your choice —making calls, getting people to the polls, and so on — spending Election Eve and Election Day on that effort could help you take the edge off your all-consuming fear that the republic will be a heap of smoking rubble come Wednesday morning.
Emotion-focused copers do better to distract themselves until this whole rigmarole is over — a tactic both Carr and Krantz said is a perfectly valid one.
Think happy thoughts
“You have a pass,” Krantz said. “If this situation is just enormously distressing to you, and you do not have a way of altering this — you’ve done what you can — and you’re still distressed by it, take a pass.”
This is emotionally-focused coping, and it is an absolutely acceptable option. “Take a break. Compartmentalize this. Do things you enjoy that take your mind off of it.”
You can do this by “engaging in activities that work on the physiological components of stress, like exercise or relaxation, or engaging in pleasant activities that let you kind of affect your body in a way that will reduce the physiologic components of stress,” Krantz said. Binge-watching a good TV show. Make out with someone cute. Do you have access to a puppy? Now is a good time for playtime.
“Don’t watch the election results alone. Find people you know and trust and feel safe with.”
The night before the election, Carr suggested, “Meditate, or just be quiet and breathe. Take your pet for a walk. Anything physical. Running. Going to yoga. Going to a movie. Reading a novel. Doing a crossword puzzle. It might help you to sleep better. Just play games with family members.”
The night before the election, this willful shutting out of the biggest news story in the country “is going to feel a little bit weird, almost like when you’re grieving and you try to do something normal and it’s hard,” Carr said. But clearing your head before bed might help you get to sleep/ward off your nightmares. Just get “a critical mass” of participants “and remind everyone that, whatever you do, the first five or ten minutes will feel weird, but give it time.”
I am obligated to tell you that both of these experts say you shouldn’t drink too much tonight
While Carr recommended finding ways to distract yourself the night before and of the election, “I don’t suggest distracting yourself with drugs and alcohol. That will only make things worse. Especially if you’re hungover” the day after the election and have to wake, head throbbing, to an impending presidency you find horrifying.
Krantz went with the more do-with-this-information-what-you-will counsel: “Do what you can to forget.”
“To watch the first debates, I had to have a drink,” he said. “There are other people I know who didn’t watch them, and they’re both legitimate.”
Getting through Election Day
Have you been reading all the polls as they roll in, letting the alternating waves of panic and relief crash over you? Here the experts humbly suggest you… not.
“I say this as someone who does surveys for a living: Polls can be very unpredictable,” Carr said. “So right now: Move away from the polls.”
“We know that there’s a margin of error,” she went on. “You can find a poll to support any perspective you want. So I would say just step away from the poll and have patience that hopefully by midnight tomorrow we will know what the answer is.”
And while you’re at it, “Step away from Facebook and Twitter. Think about what people post on Twitter: the most incendiary thing, the funniest thing. They don’t post, often, the straightforward, rational analysis. If you read something that is hateful or controversial, you can physically feel yourself get upset.”
“If you read something that is hateful or controversial, you can physically feel yourself get upset.”
“Is it blocking out reality?” she asked. “Yes and no. It’s not always reality that we see on Facebook and Twitter. It’s the man bites dog, not the dog bites man story. So keep in mind that the most extreme articles are the things showing up in your feed, and they are, perhaps, the most extreme portrayals of reality.”
If you work in the news or some news-adjacent field and you don’t have the luxury of shutting down Twitter for 24-hours (as luxurious as that sounds), “limit it to certain times of day,” Carr said. “And that’s really hard.”
But when you can, “do something to get yourself away from the computer.” And if you’re really hungry for news, read reporting from around the globe. “We have fixated on our country, but we are one small part of the world.”
As for election night, Carr advised, “Don’t watch the election results alone. Find people you know and trust and feel safe with. Because sometimes when you bounce your fears off of other people, they’ll help you rein them in. So try to turn it into a time where you spend time with those you love, respect and enjoy. And if at all possible, turn it into a celebration or commiseration in a way. Recognize that life is going to have to go on, so focus on the present. Be as zen as you can about it: Despite the craziness, we have jobs and families, we have present, immediate needs. We do need to make it through the day, regardless of what happens.”
Maybe everything will actually be fine: A thought experiment
Krantz described a “cognitive approach to stress reduction,” which essentially requires a person to “reinterpret situations so they’re not so dangerous.”
In the case of this election, which feels an awful lot like it could be doomsday, Krantz said it is helpful to remind yourself that “we have successfully as a culture survived all these years. We have a democratic country… We’ve had these types of challenges before. [So it helps to] change your appraisal of what’s happening to not make it so dire.”
Counterpoint: What if it is that dire?
Krantz allowed that, for individuals or groups who have been targeted by a candidate or that candidate’s supporters, “There are clearly a lot of people [who] have reasons to be afraid.”
“I’m a white upper-middle class woman, and I am scared to death,” Carr said. “How must this feel for women who are grappling with unwanted pregnancies? People of color? Religious minorities? There are many people who have been targets of [Trump’s] hate who are fearful for good reasons.”
Krantz’s counsel re: cognitive approaches, he clarified, is not an invitation to pretend this is fine. Just the opposite: “Do not act like everything is fine,” he said, but remember that “it’s very rare that catastrophizing has any positive effect.” (Catastrophizing: Letting your thoughts take you straight to the worst-case scenario.)
“The world will not come to an end with one of the candidates winning or losing. But depending on who you are, you may be very, very negatively affected by what happens.”
If you’re going to take this optimistic route, Krantz advised, “all of these alternative thoughts have to be realistic… The world will not come to an end with one of the candidates winning or losing. But depending on who you are, you may be very, very negatively affected by what happens.”
Krantz said you can self-talk your way out of anxiety in low-stakes situations, like if you’re nervous before a big speech or a first date. But (I asked, full of fear), what if you are stressed about a high-stakes situation? Like, to pull an example out of nowhere, the presidential election?
Here, Krantz hit a wall. “I don’t know a stress-management approach that has ever been examined to reduce legitimate distress and fear of negative consequences.”
Tomorrow (and the day after that)
The election loser, whomever he or she may be, will not likely fade quietly into obscurity. The news cycle churning around the President-elect and, in Miss America parlance, the first runner-up, could be just as anxiety-generating as the past year has been. “There will be all this fear about the fighting and the anger and resentment and name-calling,” said Krantz. “So it’s not just tomorrow.” Are we having fun yet?
If your candidate loses, Krantz said, “You have to become reconciled to what’s going to happen. In my opinion, I tend to be the kind of person that’s fairly action-oriented. Work for a better outcome next time.”
Carr echoed this idea. “The one thing we can do is to find something concrete to do in the future, some future goal that helps you to come to terms with what happens. Not inciting riots.” But you can decide, “‘Maybe I’m going to volunteer more. Maybe I’m going to learn more about gender sensitivity. Maybe I’ll contribute more money to a cause I believe in.’ If you can find any opportunity for personal growth in all of this, that’s a good thing.”
While, eventually, you’ll probably want to heal the rifts between you and the people in your life who support the other candidate (especially if those people are family members, neighbors, colleagues, and other such individuals you couldn’t avoid even if you wanted to), Carr says it’s okay to wait a bit before you re-engage with your across-the-aisle friends.
“If you need a little bit of distance and time from people you fundamentally don’t see eye to eye with, take a break,” she said. “Give yourself a little bit of time to clear your head. And once the acutest pain goes away, just focus on those things you do see eye-to-eye on.” And expect it to be a challenge. “If you believe a family member endorses someone you find reprehensible it’s going to be hard.”
And, Carr added, keep this in mind: “People can counter even the most horrific stressors and they do bounce back. We look at Holocaust survivors, sexual assault victims, people who experienced 9/11, and absolutely they have symptoms. But if they find communities of support, they can find joy and optimism again.”