Managing the psychological effects of the 2020 election

DR. YALDA SAFAI
·4 min read

For many Americans already coping with heightened stress levels because of COVID-19, the 2020 presidential election is amplifying that anxiety and uncertainty.

About 68% of U.S. adults said the presidential election is a significant source of stress in their lives, up from 56% who said so in 2016, according to a survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of the American Psychological Association.

As we head into perhaps the most divisive election in decades, inevitably there will be tensions, heated conversations among loved ones and potentially feelings of despair from election loss. Each can affect a person's well-being significantly.

For those feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and anxious this election season, here are a few useful coping strategies:

Dealing with uncertainty

"Uncertainty is stressful -- the election, the global pandemic and social unrest are all adding to a sense of uncertainty in our lives," Dr. Tania Israel, a professor of counseling psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told ABC News.

MORE: Coronavirus surging in every key swing state as voters head to polls

Avoid dwelling on things you can't control, the APA warns. When uncertainty strikes, people imagine worst-case scenarios. Break the habit of ruminating on bad outcomes. Avoid catastrophizing, and maintain a balanced perspective.

PHOTO: A person carries an umbrella and wears a mask at a polling station in Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing on Nov. 1, 2020, in New York. (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)
PHOTO: A person carries an umbrella and wears a mask at a polling station in Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing on Nov. 1, 2020, in New York. (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

"Remember you're not alone, if you're struggling -- nearly everyone is," said Dr. Kate Sweeny, a professor of Psychology at University of California, Riverside. "I'd suggest trying to get into a state of flow, completely absorbed in an activity such that you lose self-awareness and time flies by."

Bipartisan issues

Polarization may be the defining feature of American politics in 2020.

"In recent years, Americans have started to fuse their identity with their political affiliation, which was not seen in 2016," said Dr. Vaile Wright, a clinical psychologist and senior director of health care innovation at the APA.

In 1960, only 4% of Democrats and 4% of Republicans said they would be disappointed if their child married someone from the opposite political party, but by 2018, 45% of Democrats and 35% of Republicans said so, according to the APA.

"We have created an in-group and out-group situation, and we tend to dehumanize the out-group," Wright said.

PHOTO: People wait in line to vote in the United States' presidential and statewide elections at a polling site for early voting in the lobby of the Kings Theater in Brooklyn, NY., Oct. 30, 2020. (Justin Lane/EPA via Shutterstock)
PHOTO: People wait in line to vote in the United States' presidential and statewide elections at a polling site for early voting in the lobby of the Kings Theater in Brooklyn, NY., Oct. 30, 2020. (Justin Lane/EPA via Shutterstock)

Israel, the UCSB professor, added: "Some of the polarization is real, some is because the spokespersons for each side are usually the extreme version. In the media, we are hearing from the most extreme. The exhausted majority are not extreme. They are tired of the tone of conflict of the extremes and are checking out of our democracy, and that is dangerous.

When discussing political matters with friends and family, Wright suggests using "I" statements instead of "You" statements. For example, "I'm disappointed you think this way" instead of "You are disappointing." Avoid name-calling, and "try to find out where they are coming from instead," she added.

Said Israel: "Have political conversations face-to-face rather than facebook-to-facebook, where you can see the person as a full person, rather than a social media post.

Social media

"We curate our social media for the things we like -- as a result, we are only being exposed to information we want to see," Wright explained.

Added Israel: "Keep political debates off social media. You might say things on social media that you wouldn't say in person."

The APA strongly suggests taking a break from social media at this time. Avoid "doomscrolling," the term for endlessly scrolling social media and reading potentially stressful news. Keep busy and stay connected to a network of people who can support you and vice versa.

Dealing with Loss

"Let the loss motivate you toward action -- engaging with campaigns in any runoff races, getting involved in causes that are important to you -- rather than defeat you" Sweeny said.

The APA suggests volunteering in your community, advocating for an issue you support or joining a local group involved in state or local elections.

PHOTO: Early voters queue up to vote in the 2020 presidential election at Temple Terrace Public Library in Tampa, Oct. 31, 2020. (Peter Foley/EPA via Shutterstock)
PHOTO: Early voters queue up to vote in the 2020 presidential election at Temple Terrace Public Library in Tampa, Oct. 31, 2020. (Peter Foley/EPA via Shutterstock)

Accept defeat graciously, and resist the tendency to keep fighting for a lost cause. Relationships between family and community remain extremely important, so do your best to stay connected and avoid isolation -- it makes some people feel more vulnerable.

"It's important for our mental health and for our democracy," said Israel.

Strengthening connections with families, communities, and organizations is the most important approach regardless of election outcome.

Mindfulness and what you do have control over

Another thing you can do is practice mindfulness, such as mediation.

Although not for everyone, if you're having a particularly hard time, now might be the time to give it a try.

MORE: How battleground states process mail ballots -- and why it may mean delayed results

"Even small doses of mindfulness practice can ease stress and reduce the repetitive thought loop that's characteristic of worry," Sweeny added.

The APA also suggests staying active, accepting that election results may not be known on Election Day and embracing that in a democracy one thing you do have control over is voting.

Wear your "I voted" sticker with pride.

Yalda Safai M.D., M.P.H., a psychiatry resident in New York City, is a contributor to ABC News Medical Unit.

Managing the psychological effects of the 2020 election originally appeared on abcnews.go.com