America is very stressed ahead of Election Day

One psychologist referred to what he's seeing as a pervasive "sense of dread and isolation."
/ Source: NBC News

The White House has been fortified, the National Guard called out and gun sales are surging.

On the eve of a momentous election, a deeply divided nation is on the edge as it plunges deeper into a pandemic and unemployment rages while the country holds its breath in anticipation of what some fear could be a potential breakdown in law and order or democracy depending on what happens Tuesday.

Downtown Washington felt like a city preparing for a siege Monday as the normally bustling streets of the capital were turned into a plywood ghost town of boarded-up storefronts and windswept sidewalks.

"We do not advise parking or driving downtown," D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said at a press conference last week.

Empty tour busses trundled by. Necklaces had been removed from the displays of jewelry store windows. And racks of t-shirts supporting either President Donald Trump or Joe Biden sat unsold in a souvenir shop with a large sign over the boarded-up windows letting passers-by know, "We are open!"

Alex Quintero, who was working to board up an office building, said in his 30 years in construction in the D.C. area, he had never seen so much plywood on downtown facades. "Sometimes we have a problem finding it in the stores," he said. "There's a lot of work to do.”

Protective wood boards are placed on the front of a CVS Pharmacy on Oct. 28, 2020 near the White House. Businesses are preparing for possible demonstrations following next week's presidential election.Sarah Silbiger / Getty Images

And it's not just Washington. The top rising election-related Google search on Monday was "cities boarding up for election," while “election day riots" was also in the top 10. Polls show six-in-ten voters say the country is on the wrong track and a growing number are concerned about being laid off, while the economy continues to struggle and the unemployment rate remains historically high.

Jon Stokes, the deputy editor at ThePrepared.com, a website to help people prepare for emergencies, said he's seen increased interest as the election nears and COVID-19 cases rise.

"There is a very serious uptick in anxiety around everything," he said.

The site saw a massive surge in traffic in the early days of the pandemic when people were looking for information about stockpiling food and supplies, but the recent spike also included interest in home defense and firearms. "I think the firearms stuff is related to political events," he said.

Firearms sales have been through the roof for months, with the latest FBI data showing 3.3 million pre-sale firearm background checks in October, up from an average of 2.16 million for the same month in the previous five years.

Dr. Laurie Paul, a psychologist who practices in the Washington area, said she's seen a major rise in anxiety around the election and strained relationships in politically mixed families.

"Big time," she said. "They've talked about how they're feeling jittery or anxious and how it's hard to concentrate on work."

The election is coinciding with a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases and cooling weather, which will make it harder for people to see family and friends, and after months of racial reckoning that Paul and other psychologists call a "triple pandemic" of stress — the virus, the election and racial reckoning — especially for people of color.

Dr. Stephen Stein, the past president of the D.C. Psychological Association and a practicing psychologist, said he's been getting calls from people he hasn't worked with in 20 years.

"All three of these things are melding together and producing a synergistic sense of dread and isolation," he said.

Recent research by the American Psychological Association found 68% of Americans say the 2020 election is a significant source of stress in their lives — a sizable increase from the 52% who said the same in 2016. And the feeling is across the political divide, with 76% of Democrats, 67% of Republicans and 64% of Independents reporting election-related stress.

"This has been a year unlike any other in living memory," said APA CEO Arthur Evans Jr.

Researchers with the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) and MilitiaWatch released a joint report last week warning of "increased militia activity in the election and post-election period" across the country.

And left-wing anti-fascist and anti-racists groups are preparing as well, with one organizing a large rally near the White House on Election Night and saying they're "ready to do whatever it takes to Defend Democracy."

Around the country, anxiety and fear is rampant, especially among Democrats still scarred by their surprise loss in 2016 and who now fear Trump and his supporters may use violence or other extra-legal means to cling to power.

Beth DeBruyn, 54, a mom of two from Delaware County, Pa., told NBC News on Friday that she thought Biden needed an "undeniable victory" in order for things to end smoothly.

"I've never experienced this feeling around an election," she said. "It's been stressful. I can't wait for the election to get here."

Dave Litko, 61, of McKeesport, Pa., did not vote in 2016, but decided to vote for Biden this year because he said he was "afraid that Trump was trending toward wanting to become president for life."

Kenneth Barton Jr., 70, a retired engineer from Alpharetta, Georgia, a suburb north of Atlanta, said that no matter who wins, it will take years to "get away from" the racial tensions that have exploded into view during the Trump administration.

"It’s no surprise to me that there's people like the Proud Boys out there," Barton, who is black and supports Biden said of the far-right extremist group. "What is a surprise to me is how many of them there are."

Multiple states have tapped the National Guard troops to help poll workers backstop police in the event of massive protests. And cities like Denver have urged businesses to prepare for civil unrest.

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, said last week it was pulling guns and ammunition from its shelves, but reversed that decision Friday saying it expected any unrest to be geographically isolated.

The International Crisis Group, a non-profit that typically works in developing countries and global hot zone overseas, warned in a recent report that "the ingredients for unrest are present."

"The electorate is polarized, both sides frame the stakes as existential, violent actors could disrupt the process and protracted contestation is possible. President Donald Trump's often incendiary rhetoric suggests he will more likely stoke than calm tensions," the group warned in a report.

But for Trump supporters, the prevailing anxiety was that Democrats would lead the country down a road to socialism or communism, despite Biden's four-decade record as a moderate.

"I think communism is a serpent that's underlying a lot of politics today, usually the Democratic side," said Michael Bieda, a 53-year-old Arizonan wearing blue sunglasses and a "Socialism Distancing" shirt, who attended a Trump rally in the Phoenix area.

Paul, the psychologist, said that while she usually works with anxious clients to put their tendency to catastrophize in context, it’s harder to do so now when a breakdown in society seems less far-fetched.

“I feel like a lot of these worries are realistic, so it's really had to shift my strategy,” she said.

When one client said he would make sure to fill up the gas tank in his car before election night, just in case, she thought to herself that that wasn't a bad idea and she might do the same herself.

A version of this story originally appeared on NBCNews.com.

Sahil Kapur, Lauren Egan and Adam Edelman contributed.