Managing Election Stress and Burnout

How to Cope with Campaign Season

Maybe you’ve been looking forward to it, and maybe you haven’t – another election year. If you’re stressed about the 2024 election, it might help to know that what you’re feeling has a name: “election stress disorder.” 

As the Mayo Clinic has pointed out, this is not the name of an official psychiatric diagnosis, but a term that describes the worry and anxiety – sometimes with accompanying physical symptoms – that many of us feel when another national election is approaching. 

Election season can spark a variety of negative responses. “I worry constantly,” says Lorelei, a utilities administrator and mom of two who lives outside Seattle. “Our country is very divided, and I’m concerned about what may happen in the future.” 

A study of the 2020 presidential election by political scientists from three major universities found that Americans tended to be more anxious before Election Day, with anxiety levels falling, at least in some people, once ballots were cast and counted.[i]

Intriguingly, certain groups of people reported less anxiety before the election and others were more anxious afterward. The people who were most engaged and attentive tended to have the most anxiety both before and after the election, according to researchers.

Here are a few suggestions for coping with election-year stress and burnout. 

Manage the “toddler” part of your brain

“Mine!” “I don’t wanna!” If you’ve ever had a two-year-old, you know how basic instincts sometimes take over. If your limbic system gets fired up, it can happen to you as an adult too, says psychologist Steven Stosny, PhD. You’re shouting, you’re stamping your feet, you’re cutting ties with friends and relatives … and that’s just five minutes on Facebook.

Stosny uses the term election stress disorder to describe this type of raging, “all or nothing thinking,” blame, denial and avoidance many of us fall prey to during an election cycle.[ii] 

To counteract this tendency, Stosny recommends, well, acting like an adult. “To make the country stronger,” he writes, “we must be compassionate to the people closest to us, respect the people we encounter, [and] tolerate differences among all people.” 

In practice, this means that even if you think your beloved sister is wrong about a candidate or issue, you remember that (a) her vote is her choice, (b) most positions have some merit, and (c) speaking harsh words or cutting off the relationship will cause hurt for both of you – hurt that could last longer than the presidency or even the lifetime of the candidate. You can also set up a boundary that protects both of you by agreeing not to discuss certain issues or politics in general. 

As Stosny points out, toddlers aren’t known for their compassionate respect for differences. Adults can, or at least once did, have reasoned discussions with the goal of understanding each other’s points of view.

Know you’re not alone

Having compassion for yourself is another aspect of managing election-year stress. One survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that about half of respondents were stressed by an upcoming election.[iii] 

But is it the event itself, or the months of news coverage, commentary and speculation beforehand that fatigue us? A Pew Research poll found that those surveyed were exhausted by the sheer volume of political news, with nearly 7 in 10 reporting “news fatigue.”[iv] 

Step back from social media and news

Stepping back from news and social media can help. If you can, think back to a time when you had to wait for tomorrow morning’s paper or the evening news to catch up on current events. Did you feel more frantic and obsessed with the latest poll numbers, or less? 

If you own a smartphone, your news and social media feeds may be within arm’s reach 24-7. Tips from the American Psychological Association to reduce election stress include:

  • Limit your media consumption.[v]  “We haven’t watched the nightly news since 2016,” says Randy, a retired tech executive. Instead, he and his wife Maryam switched to reading the newspaper online. They spend a little time with the new edition each morning, and that’s it for the day. 
  • Avoid conversations that could get testy. These days, even a stranger at the dog park might be frustrated enough to pick a fight over national policies or the upcoming vote. Feel free to say something noncommittal like “Don’t get me started,” then turn the conversation elsewhere or walk away. 

You may also consider:

  • Turning off news alerts and social media notifications. If you’re on tenterhooks waiting for a specific announcement, part of your brain is constantly listening for that “ping.” 
  • Taking a social media break. Yes, you might miss wishing your high school classmates “Happy Birthday,” but what will you gain?

Step up to make a difference

“Anyone can make a difference, and everyone should try.” —John F. Kennedy

A popular phrase holds that “all politics is local.” Without denying the existence of national and global forces, we can remember that 2024 brings many campaigns besides the one for U.S. chief executive. Could your local elections office use help counting ballots? Maybe a local candidate is holding a virtual town hall and needs people to show up. 

You can also use the series of steps offered by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America to cope with election stress.v Instead of thinking “The election will lead to disaster!” they suggest identifying your specific concern, such as “I’m afraid I might lose my health insurance if this candidate is elected.”

Once you identify the problem, you can brainstorm possible courses of action. This might include doing some online research, looking into other sources of insurance, or talking to an expert. Then identify the short- and long-term consequences of each choice and decide on at least one step you can actually take. 

Take a global perspective

Some countries have compulsory voting. Others don’t allow everyone to vote. Women have only been voting in Switzerland since 1971; in Saudi Arabia, the year was 2015.

In some countries (Russia, North Korea), leaders are elected by a staggering margin, sometimes greater than the percentage of people who actually went to the polls. As U.S. residents cast their ballots, we can be thankful that despite some disagreement on where, when, and how to vote, we are allowed to ask questions, volunteer to help with elections, and express our views. From a global perspective, American vote in relative freedom, safety, and order. (Want to know more about opinions on voting? Check out this Pew Research Center report from early 2024.) 

The U.S. also has more than a single branch of government. While the 2024 election will decide the next president, whoever wins will have to work with elected representatives in Congress. The process of governing our federated republic can be slow and sometimes exasperating, but it was designed to ensure no single branch of government has ultimate sway.

Know the danger signs

As with all types of burnout, the danger signs of election-year stress and burnout can include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Losing or gaining weight. You may notice that you are overeating or not eating enough, or drinking more alcohol than usual.
  • Feeling stressed and worried
  • Feeling irritable or moody
  • Having trouble sleeping

Our tips on  self-care can help. Making emotional connections can also reduce stress and burnout, whatever the cause.

Creating health for yourself and your family equips you to make the difference you would like to see in our world. So instead of feeling duty-bound to read every article and tweet, and fully educate everyone who disagrees with your views, consider that this election cycle too will pass into the history books, but you will likely still be around. Supporting yourself and taking small, practical steps to improve things can be much less stressful for you and your family and will ultimately be more useful.

References

[i] University of Nebraska-Lincoln in SciTech Daily. Election anxiety: New study sheds light on the mental health toll of national politics. April 23, 2023. Available at https://scitechdaily.com/election-anxiety-new-study-sheds-light-on-the-mental-health-toll-of-national-politics/. Accessed January 30, 2024.

[ii] Do you suffer from election stress disorder? Politics in the wrong part of the brain Steven Stosny, PhD, Psychology Today. Posted Apr 15, 2016

[iii] APA survey reveals 2016 presidential election source of significant stress for more than half of americans. Date created: October 13, 2016. Original survey: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2016/presidential-election.pdf

[iv]  PEW Research: Americans are worn out by the sheer volume of news https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/02/26/almost-seven-in-ten-americans-have-news-fatigue-more-among-republicans/

[v] How to Respond to Political Worries. Anxiety and Depression Association of America

For more information on managing election stress and burnout, check out our Tools to Fix Election Stress one-page guide—a simple resource guide, ready made for sharing. 


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