Most Americans are experiencing 'significant' election stress. Here's how to cope

New data shows that the 2020 presidential election is a significant source of stress for many in the United States. Experts offer advice on how to cope.
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/ Source: TODAY

More than two-thirds of adults in the United States say that the 2020 election is a significant source of stress in their lives, according to new data from the American Psychological Association (APA).

That's a significant increase from 2016, when just 52% of survey respondents said that they found the election to be a source of stress. Now, 68% of respondents said that the election was bringing them stress.

"For many folks, this year feels like things are way beyond their control," said Jessica Stern, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Health.

According to the APA data, the levels of stress vary based on different demographics. Adults with chronic conditions are "consistently more likely" to call the election a source of stress than adults without chronic conditions (39% vs. 28%). The proportion of Black adults calling the election a source of stress has also jumped significantly: 46% of surveyed Black Americans said the 2016 election was a source of stress, compared to 71% of respondents this year.

TODAY spoke to several psychological experts to find out why this election is so much more stressful than previous years and just what Americans can do to stay relaxed during what may be a long, drawn-out process.

Why is the 2020 election so stressful to so many?

Christopher M. Federico, Ph.D., the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Political Psychology in Minneapolis, said that there are several factors that lead to more stress, including the changing nature of modern politics.

"The divide between the two parties has been changing, long-term," Federico said, explaining that one major part of the increased divide is a phenomenon political scientists call "social sorting," where ideology and identity become increasingly tied to political parties, leading to more animosity and situations where political differences can feel like personal attacks.

"It feels like there's a lot more at stake," Federico explained. "It's not just which party wins, it's whether all these other groups are going to feel like they have power or not ... People get more worried. They feel more threatened if their party doesn't win. We would expect that to make people feel more stressed out."

Another stressful aspect of the election is just how long the election cycle lasts, with candidates beginning to campaign long before November.

"When you have a prolonged stressor that can definitely lead to increased rates of stress and anxiety, because the system is sort of constantly on high alert," said Stern. "... And so when you have these longer periods of stress, that can certainly lead to anxiety and frustration and concern."

That extended election cycle will only last longer this year: With mail-in voting the primary mechanism in many states, it's expected that election results won't be known for at least several days after Nov. 3.

Mail-in voting may also lead to more stress: There are more deadlines to keep track of, and uncertainty about whether a vote will count can have a psychological effect on some voters.

"A lot of that structure that we've had in previous elections is changing, and just fluid, and for individuals who are feeling overwhelmed to begin with, that lack of structure can be much more anxiety provoking," Stern said. "If you have to do extra work mentally or intensive research to figure out where to get your ballot, how long it's going to take is going to get there in time, all of those types of things that can be very overwhelming."

Sherry Benton, Ph.D., the founder of TAO Connect, an online therapy service based in St. Petersburg, Florida, added that feeling like one doesn't have a major effect or ability to impact current events can lead to feelings of hopelessness, which in turn can lead to stress.

"The more we feel out of control about what's happening, the more stressful it becomes," she said. "The higher our level of anxiety, the more it interferes with cognitive functioning. If we get anxious enough, it's hard to think straight."

On top of all of this is the stressful background that has colored most of 2020: The election is taking place alongside the coronavirus pandemic, significant weather phenomenons and heightened conversations about race and inequality in America.

"It's not just that we're having the worst pandemic since 1918," Benton said. "We have more wildfires than we've had in our recorded history. We have so many hurricanes in the Atlantic that they've run out of letters. We've got issues of race and the police and protests and looting and unemployment and financial stress, and all of that is related to the election. Who we choose will determine how all of those things are dealt with."

How can you stay relaxed amid the stress?

Just exactly how you can de-stress will depend on what's bringing you stress, but there are a few general tips that can help anyone stay calm amid the election and other national news.

Start by trying to limit the amount of time you spend doomscrolling on social media or obsessing over the news. If you are still reading a lot of news, make sure you're getting it from unbiased sources.

"If you can create boundaries for yourself by setting time limits, that can be really helpful," Stern explained.

Make sure that you have some self-care routines in place, and that you're supporting yourself with a good diet and some exercise, along with a hobby that's totally separate from the election.

"Things like meditation are really helpful. Any kind of activity that absorbs your whole mind that you can really kind of lose yourself in is helpful," said Benton.

Try to surround yourself with positive resources, like friends or family who you can talk to. While none of the experts interviewed for this story encouraged cutting off relationships with people who have different political ideologies, they said it can be good to try to limit time spent with people who you find toxic or difficult to engage with.

"It can be really helpful to have a meaningful conversation with someone who disagrees with you, so long as that conversation feels like a dialogue and not two monologues," Stern said. "... If you're finding that there are individuals who are draining you in terms of conversation and that conversation is ultimately not fulfilling to you, you can always respectfully set boundaries around that individual or those types of conversations."

Stern said that you can also take a more active role in causes you care about.

"Connect to the causes or actions that align with your values," she said. "Maybe that means donating time to a cause that resonates with you ... Making sure you're doing things that align with your values can be really powerful and can give you a sense of control in an uncontrollable situation."

It may also help to make sure that you're prepared to vote. Check with local and state resources to make sure your registration is valid, your records are correct and "taking any other actions that you think you can do to bring yourself closer to the actions you want to take," said Stern.

If the election is bringing you an inordinate amount of stress and anxiety, Stern and Benton both recommended seeking professional advice and care.

"There's nothing wrong with finding a mental health professional who you can talk to," Stern said. "There's nothing wrong with that, and it can be a very helpful, unbiased space for you to process anything you're struggling with."