How To Manage Your Mental Health During This Nightmare Election

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This election has been a garbage fire since the jump, and it’s only getting worse. The Ugh, seriously, 2016? thinking is not just overwrought Twitter commentary, but a statistically relevant result of our collective nightmare. Or, in other words, it’s totally normal to feel stressed out, unable to sleep, or even anxious or depressed right now. (I mean, always, but especially right now.)

In a national poll of 1,000 voting-age citizens, University of Minnesota psychologist William J. Doherty found that 43% of respondents reported emotional stress related to Trump’s campaign, 28% due to Clinton’s campaign, and 93% say it’s worse than any other election. The evidence doesn’t stop there. According to the American Psychological Association, the election is a “significant source of stress” for 52% of American adults. Or, in other words (I’m not sure how reassuring this is): Pretty much everyone else feels helplessly screwed, too!

With 20 days left until the vote, and one more debate to endure, it’s likely things are going to get more painful before they subside — especially for women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and/or anyone who has any common sense at all. In the effort to quell our national anguish and prevent your chest from splitting open out of sheer anxiety, Refinery29 spoke to Alice Boyes, PhD, author of The Anxiety Toolkit, about election-induced mental health issues — and how to manage even the most distressing moments of political panic.

As someone who is immersed in the field of psychology on a grander scale, how do you see people reacting to the scientific fact that everything is terrible?

"Well, the family stress that it’s causing is definitely a factor. I noticed something on my Facebook page the other day. It said, 'Go to Donald Trump’s page, go to Hillary Clinton’s page, and see how many of your friends and family members like their page, and then unfriend them.' Certainly that’s a little bit of what I’ve been noticing. You know, what if your parents are voting for Donald Trump?"

My dad is voting for Trump, and I’m pretty horrified by that.

"I think that’s what a lot of the anxiety is about. It’s almost like a shock. People feel like their sense of knowing the people the people that they know — like your parents — or their sense of knowing their homes, their communities, and their country is getting so disrupted. The election is making it clear that where people thought their values were in line with other people’s values, there are maybe some big disconnects that they weren’t expecting. So, a lot of this is that shock and surprise it’s inducing, and the anxiety that comes from that."

It’s hard to remember the emotional details of the 2012 election — heck, even Kim Kardashian’s robbery feels like it happened in another lifetime at this point — but do elections in general have this kind of impact? Or is it the raging hellfire of 2016 specifically?

"Usually it will be things like people holding off investing in their 401K, because they are not sure what’s going to happen to the markets during an election. There’s usually a bit of anxiety around change, things like that. There’s a bit of attachment to the president as well, especially with a couple as personable as the Obamas. You’ve got that sense of connection to them, and people sense that that person they’re attached to is going away; it’s attachment-anxiety-inducing."

Okay, cool, so it’s totally normal that I am depressed about missing the Obamas.

"Totally normal. Another thing I’ve heard is, 'Where are the Obamas going to go? Are they going to be there for us?' There’s anxiety there."

It probably also doesn’t help that many people view this election as a “lesser of two evils” scenario. I mean, the “evils” have never been even remotely comparable, but you get my point...

"Yeah, that’s also anxiety-provoking, that you have to go put your tick in a box for someone that you’re not fully behind. There’s a sense of cognitive dissonance. I think a lot of people who are going to plan to vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton are doing it with the sense that they’re not fully behind their choice. Feeling like we have to do something that doesn’t sit well with us is a horrible sense to have about something."

Right, when the main issue is the world not ending, you have to divert from following your heart a little bit.

"And that’s uncomfortable. For a lot of people, there’s that sense of identity in voting. You know, 'I’m a Republican,' or, 'I’m Democrat,' and what that means. So, for somebody that sees themselves as being center right, for example, and is going to cross party lines and vote for Hillary, there’s a question of, 'Well, what am I going to do next time?' Is this an identity shift for them? Or is it a one-off behavior that relates to this extraordinary circumstance?"

The theme of this year is pretty much, “Well, if you weren’t depressed already...” But how does the intensity of the election affect pre-existing mental health issues?

"If you’ve got the propensity to have a sense of hopelessness, that’s certainly going to get activated with this. That sense of not belonging within your country, of not understanding, not fitting in with other people, that can be hugely a depression trigger. As for anxiety, there’s a lot of polling coming out now that it’s probably going to be Hillary, but as we saw in the U.K. with the Brexit situation, you can think it’s going to go one way, and you can think there’s safety, and the reality turns out to be something different. So, I think that people are still a bit scared. They feel like it’s going to be okay, but also wonder if there could be this horrible surprise coming their way, more so than in any other election."

A lot of people think their vote doesn’t matter, but doing something is part of dealing with anxiety and depression.

Alice Boyes, PhD
Oh, 100%. We have been pre-gaming the apocalypse for at least six months now. What do you think is the best way to manage that sense of doom?

"I always think you should identify whether there are any practical things that you can do. Ask yourself that question. It might be calling any voter in any swing state, who you think might be in danger of not voting. For example, if you know somebody who works in an on-call situation, who might get called in on Election Day, or who may not go vote. Even just making sure that they have a plan for how they are going to get to the polls can be helpful. A lot of people think their vote doesn’t matter, because they are in a really safe state, but doing something is part of dealing with anxiety and depression. The first step is looking at whether there’s anything that you can do that would make a difference. It’s not even thinking to yourself, Oh, I could go out and volunteer, but what are the small, practical things that you can do, that you actually would be willing to do? Figure it out, and then do those things."

So, battling a feeling of inefficacy, even in tiny ways, can prevent my chest from feeling like it might explode?

"Yes, and then also thinking, Okay, I’ve done all that I can practically do. And then coping with that emotion, calming down, and thinking, Okay, I’m hearing people say a lot of things that sound crazy to me, but I’m also seeing a lot of people coming out and calling that out, and agreeing that these are not American values. It’s hearing both sides, that maybe there are people who have opinions that surprise or disgust you, but also hearing that there are a lot of people sharing opinions that make you feel more secure."

What else do you recommend doing when it seems like every conversation, every article you stumble across online, revolves around this horrifically stressful topic?

"Try starting another type of conversation. For example, I noticed a Facebook friend posted, 'Let’s take a break from politics and talk about investing; tell me about your investment strategy.' [You can also] develop some polite strategies for closing down political conversations when you want to exit a conversation. [When it comes to media,] the basic advice is to just have a specific plan — for example, 'I’m going to listen to X podcast, but I’m not going to watch cable news or read politics stories on X websites.' You might also want to have an if/then plan, e.g., 'If I find myself reading news articles or watching cable news, I’m going to…'

"It can [also] be easier to take a complete break rather than try to moderate — take a day’s break from reading the New York Times or New York Magazine or any other site where you end up consuming political content. Pick what works for you — for example, no news on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can pick any amount of news consumption that works for you."

Anything else I should know for next time I get on Twitter and want to die?

"It’s helpful to realize that change does happen. It’s a process, but things have been moving in positive directions. It’s acknowledging where things are at the moment without catastrophizing it, or thinking that everybody is against you. It’s important to look at the relationship between what you expose yourself to, and then what actions you take. You as one person don’t have to do everything, but you as one person have to do something to help society move in the direction you want to see society move in."

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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