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'Election stress disorder': How to cope with the anxiety as political tensions intensify

47 percent of workers surveyed say the election has affected the way they work. Here's how to stay engaged and informed without damaging your mental health.
A voter prepares to cast her ballot in in the Super Tuesday primary in Falls Church, Va., on March 3, 2020.Olivier Douliery / AFP - Getty Images

Between the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, the rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak and the stock market’s staggering plunge, 2020 has been a heck of a year so far. And now, as the race for the Democratic nomination nears the finish line, these issues and more seem to be coming to an ugly head, with the news reaching an almost deafening volume. It’s a lot to take in, and many of us are having trouble balancing it all. A new survey from Gartner found that 47 percent of workers say the 2020 election has distracted them from doing their jobs. 33 percent of those polled said the election has caused them to spend more time getting political news at work, and 38 percent said they avoid talking to colleagues because of their political views.

“The 2020 political campaign season has been a riveting spectacle that has included a president's impeachment, political polarization among voters and a crowded Democratic primary race,” says Ann Burnette, an associate professor of communication studies at Texas State University. “I'm not surprised that people try to process their reactions to this political season at their workplace. In addition to the inherent drama of an election where opponents want to defeat a divisive incumbent, there are other factors that could be making voters anxious: the reports by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election (and is likely already interfering in the 2020 election) have created serious concern; the issue of climate change is a grim problem that is distressing for many, and the outbreak of coronavirus has caused extreme worry as people wonder how individuals and the U.S. government should respond.”

That's a lot to take in. It's no wonder it feels like the weight of the world rests on voters’ shoulders, leading to what Steven Stosny, a therapist and author, dubbed “election stress disorder” or ESD. Describing it in an article for Psychology Today, Stosny wrote that ESD is a kind of takeover of the rational “adult brain” by the emotional “toddler brain” which is “highly susceptible to emotional contagion; toddlers take on whatever negative emotions are around them, as any parent who has been tense or irritable near one can attest.”

Much like “headline stress disorder”, you won’t find it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Still, it describes the very real heightened stress people may be experiencing in relation to elections. In October of 2016, the American Psychological Association found that 52 percent of American adults reported that the election was a “somewhat significant source of stress”, while a 2017 report, also from the APA, found that 57 percent of American adults felt the current political climate was “a very or somewhat significant source of stress”.

Fortunately, there are ways to get past election-related stress, or at least, to cope with it so that it doesn’t take over your life. Here are nine tactics that experts recommend.

9 ways to cope with the 24/7 political news cycle

1. It’s good to care — but you need to set boundaries

“It's not a bad thing to care about politics and to become emotionally involved in them,” says Jennifer Douglas, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, and a licensed psychologist with a private practice in San Francisco. “However, it is important to set boundaries to optimize your own mental health and not let stressful news cycles take over your life. It is important to retain perspective in the overall picture. For instance, it's a good thing if you care about social justice and climate change; however, spending hours per day pouring over news articles will not necessarily directly result in a change to our current justice system or global warming; instead, refocus your efforts into efficient interactions with the issues that you care about.”

2. Practice ‘values-based living’

“Instead of going down the rabbit hole of new climate change research papers for an entire Thursday evening, read for 20 minutes and then sew the button back on one shirt to save the environmental impact of buying a new one and having it shipped to your home,” Douglas says. “As psychologists, we call this ‘values-based living.’ The closer your everyday actions are to your values, the more fulfilled you will be (and the better off our climate and political system will be as well).”

This idea of values-based living comes into play in political science as well as in psychology, as Lindsey Cormack, assistant professor of political science at the Stevens Institute of Technology, suggests. She recommends choosing to dial down a stress response to political news by “acknowledging it, letting it pass, and getting back to whatever you meant to be doing ... What group can you volunteer for? Which member of Congress do you need to contact? What way can you channel that stress response into action?”

3. Take a social media break

If it seems like this election and other news is everywhere you look, you’re probably looking at your phone a lot. Take measures to log off when you can, especially when it comes to social media.

“Thankfully we have a lot of control over the information that we fuel our brains with,” says Teralyn Sell, a licensed professional counselor. “Around this time, our news feeds are filled with controversial posts and a ton of negativity. Taking a social media break whether it's just unfollowing negative news feeds (or people) or even disabling your accounts for a while can be a healthy way to bring focus back into your life.”

4. Limit your news consumption

“According to a 2018 study, Americans spend an average of 11 hours a day on average consuming media,” says Dana Udall, a licensed psychologist and the chief clinical officer at Ginger, an on-demand mental health company. “Carve out opportunities to disconnect from the media, particularly if you find yourself becoming distraught, anxious or emotionally reactive. Staying in a state of high stress over extended periods of time can be harmful to your physical and emotional health. Take breaks and focus on the things that you have direct control over, such as day-to-day routines and relationships with loved ones. Investing in those during times of stress can mitigate the impact of upsetting news and allow you to maintain equanimity and balance.”

5. Set an alarm for the news

“Set a dedicated time once per day to check the news, and set a timer to keep yourself accountable,” Douglas says. “I recommend turning off all nonemergency push notifications. These notifications often cause us to interrupt our current task and we are likely to get ‘sucked in’ to whatever story comes up on our phone. This will cause our brain to make a cognitive set shift from what we are working on to then focus on the news. This cognitive set shift takes time and mental energy, although we don't necessarily notice in the moment. It will then take us time to shift back into a working mindset.”

6. Ask yourself these two questions when reading the news

“If you find yourself getting stuck in a conversation or getting irritated by something you read, ask yourself a few simple questions to gain perspective,” Sell says. “Ask, ‘Is this article helpful?’ and ‘Is this article real (or reflective of my own truth)?’ If you answer ‘no’ to either of those questions, give yourself permission to move on from it.”

7. Pick up a new hobby or go to a very funny movie

Has it been a while since you did something that challenges your brain in a new way like learning a language or just gives you a burst of joy, like going to a comedy show? Delay no further. “This is a great opportunity to join a class or see a show,” Sell says. “This will allow your brain to take a break from politics and stress and focus on something more positive even if it's only for an hour or two a week.”

Whatever you can do to get yourself to smile will help you in a way that is deeper than you might expect. In fact, smiling even without meaning it can reap benefits for stress management and “trick your brain into happiness”.

8. Change what's changeable and control what's controllable — and understand the difference

Understanding what we can control and what we can change is powerful to our own stress levels,” Sell says. “Most of the political climate is not controlled by us nor can we change other's beliefs or feelings around it. Accepting the idea that we can only control ourselves and change things for us is a powerful reminder to not get caught up ruminating on the unchangeable and the uncontrollable. It is important to point the finger inward and ask, 'What about this can I change and control?' before you get caught up in the stress of it all.”

It is important to point the finger inward and ask, 'What about this can I change and control?' before you get caught up in the stress of it all.

Teralyn Sell, licensed professional counselor

9. Celebrate the good things in American politics

History is filled with turbulent and troubling times, just like our current news cycle, but don’t overlook the virtuous moments.

“This year we celebrate 100 years of women having the vote,” Burnette says. “We are also a diverse population. All of these are good things, and they mean that sometimes our voices are in conflict. The American political process is messy. While no political process is perfect, American campaigns and elections give citizens many opportunities to express their beliefs and change their communities for the better.”

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