Friday, October 28, 2016

Election Anxiety Disorder and What To Do About It

Like just about everyone I know, I have been feeling anxious about this election. I say "just about" because  there might be some acquaintance who is blissfully uncaring about the issues and candidates. So for the rest of us, this season has turned in to a series of conversations that always end up on the topic, augmented by repeated and frequent checking on news (and polls and election predictions), and, most of all, anxiety about what might happen if the other candidate wins. I've dubbed this toxic combination of worry and hypervigilance "Election Anxiety Disorder." (Although Electoral Anxiety Syndrome works, too.)

This is the most fear-driven campaign I can remember, and the first presidential election I remember was Eisenhower versus Stevenson, so that's quite a few. Each side holds up emotionally manipulative predictions of doom, gloom, global thermonuclear destruction, moral deterioration, and general Bad Things Happening as a way of galvanizing their followers into action and swaying the opinions of those very few remaining undecided voters. And it's happening on both sides, although the specific details of the threats are different.

Chronic anxiety takes its toll in physical as well as psychological unwellness. Sleep, work, relationships, all aspects of our lives can be impacted. We may lose or gain weight, depending on which we do not need to do. We spend more and more time glued to the television or computer. Eyestrain, backaches, headaches, stomach pain, obsessive thoughts, irritability...the list goes on of the ways our bodies and minds break down under stress. Recognizing what's going on is the first step towards better managing this stress.

Laughing at it -- and ourselves -- including giving the whole mess a silly name, goes a long way.


One of the obvious ways to help ourselves is to limit the amount of exposure to news stories (and polls, interviews, social media, and the like). This is much easier said than done. Following every tiny change in information has an addictive quality. Our brains become alerted by changes in our environment, which has obvious evolutionary advantages. Fast-changing visual media like news programs and advertisements rely on this response to attract and hold our attention. In the same way our ancestors might have scanned the horizon for any change in the movement of herds of prey animals or signs of a stalking predator, we scan our information horizon for signs of threat (or reassurance, which can evaporate just as quickly as a lion can burst out of the tall grass). So it can be difficult to tear ourselves away from that screen or newspaper, particularly when our lives are in so many other ways attached to the flow of information. For many of us, this constant reactivation and connection with sources of perceived threat fuels-- nay, turbocharges -- our anxiety. However, some people use information as a way of managing their anxiety. One size of suggestion does not fit all.

Getting enough exercise can be helpful. For some of us, cardiovascular activities that get our hearts pounding drain the constant levels of adrenalin from our bodies. For others, meditative practices like yoga or tai chi can  restore calm. Most of us sleep better when we have had enough exercise. These fall under the general rubric of taking good care of ourselves. Other measures include eating well, limiting stimulants, drinking in moderation if at all, and so forth.

Most of us are not affected by Election Anxiety Disorder in isolation. We live in community, whether face-to-face or online. We talk about what we have heard and read, especially the things that trigger our fears or are otherwise sensational.Sometimes all this does is give us a chance to vent at the cost of escalating our tension. ("Can you believe what Candidate has done? Did you see the story revealing Terrible Secret From Candidate's Past?") Instead of egging each other on -- or, worse yet, turning the conversation into a contest of who has the juiciest scandal -- we can use these interactions to air our own feelings, defuse our anxiety, and brainstorm solutions.

Just about everyone I know responds well to the change in emphasis. "I'm so ready for this election to be over!" echoes on both sides of the political spectrum. Even if we're not willing to give up our attachment to the outcome, it is a relief to take an honest look at how wearying the whole process is.

Here are some other strategies:
Humor can be a godsend. The stakes may be serious, but we don't have to take ourselves seriously all the time. We admire public figures who are able to take it as well as dish it out at celebrity roasts. Why not find ways to laugh at our own foibles?

Likewise, singing, making music, playing with our children or pets, all get us breathing and laughing, and remind us of our capacity for joy.

Remembering what we can and cannot control. Remember the Serenity Prayer, that talks about accepting what we cannot change? The tricky part is when actions you can take (voting, phone banking, Tweeting insanely) give you the illusion of control, and perhaps there is some truth within that illusion. Not that voting and campaigning are bad things in themselves, but ongoing election activities can become problematic when you buy into the notion that the more you do, the calmer you will be.  And that only you can make a difference. Everyone's mileage varies. For some, taking those actions like spending days at a candidate's phone bank, gives a sense of satisfaction, having "done my part," and the ability to then set aside the crazier aspects of the election. For others, increasing the investment of time and energy only escalates the tension and worry. The trick is to pay attention to whether it's good for you.

Then again, you can always give in to the Dark Side and stock up on voodoo dolls and stick pins...




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