How to Survive Election-Related Stress

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Election got you down?

“It is a challenging time,” affirmed Dr. Matthew Torres, executive director of the Johns Hopkins University Counseling Center.

This echoes the American Psychology Association’s recent finding: Among American adults over the age of 18, 54 percent surveyed reported the “2016 election is a very or somewhat significant source of stress.”

“Societally, we’ve become so strident and bifurcated,” Torres said. “A lot of people are expressing fear about, ‘What happens if this person wins?’ Or fear about the country splitting.”

This leads to a sense of helplessness, Torres said, and a sense of alienation among those who “don’t understand how these people in their family or neighborhood could possibly think differently than they do.”

As for a possible culprit, it was in January 2013 that President Barack Obama worried that what he called an “empathy deficit” might be a larger political problem than the financial deficit.

According to a 2010 breakdown by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, today’s college students are 40 percent less empathetic than those of 20 or 30 years ago.

This determination was made by the institute after analyzing data culled from 14,000 students over a three-decade period, including the fact that those students were less likely to agree with a statement such as, “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.”

Theoretically, this lack of empathy can cause a kind of cognitive dissonance, and can facilitate the ability to attack or fear people who are no longer seen as human, but seen as villains or monsters to be violently opposed or fled from.

According to a recent Esquire/NBC News survey with 3,000 respondents, “half of all Americans are angrier today than they were a year ago.”

“We the people are pissed,” the article reads. “The body politic is burning up. And the anger that courses through our headlines and news feeds — about injustice and inequality, about marginalization and disenfranchisement, about what they are doing to us — shows no signs of abating.”

One possible engine for this brand of “hyperbole,” as Torres qualified it, is social media. The resource’s propensity toward “emotional arousal” over “novel information” might be riling up the populace in a way that is, as the APA found, making 54 percent of those engaged more likely to experience election-related stress, versus 45 percent of those who do not use social media.

Although he noted that his 14-year-old daughter uses social media in a positive way, Torres worries that the digital tool also “allows for people to get great access to one side of the story of what their circle sees and so they’re not getting an even, balanced flow of news. They’re only getting what their friends are sending them.”

This is problematic, in the view of Diane Bravmann, a licensed clinical social worker  for more than 25 years, because “no matter what our political philsoophy is, it’s important to be open and listen to all sides. When we listen to more sides, we are able to deal with the results and have more of a grasp of how we deal with how the election turns out.”

But what of the putative necessity of righteous anger — the idea promulgated by the bumper sticker that says, “IF YOU’RE NOT AFRAID, YOU’RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION”?

“It’s okay to be angry, but it’s important to figure out what you can do with that anger that’s positive in order to not detroy yourself or others,” said Bravmann, who does believe “change has to happen, but good people are getting hurt and that’s not justifiable.”

There’s certainly a place for making the world a better place and being aware of broader concerns. But it’s equally important to make healthy personal choices, both mental and physical.

“There’s no question it’s related,” Torres said. “You take care of one and you’re taking care of the other.”

“Wellness and nutrition go together,” said Bravmann.

For those interested in meditation to help calm their electoral anxieties, Bravmann suggested attending a class before trying it.

Another stress-reliever might be a media break.

“It’s almost heretical, but one thing we recommed to students is to turn off media,” Torres said. “Take breaks from the exhange, step away from it, engage in people in real life where the focus isn’t on ‘big issues.’”

The APA also recommends that reduced media consumption may be a palliative to one’s stress this time of year.

Torres also noted that along with spending time with friends and family, it’s important to remember that if real support is needed, people should let others know they are struggling.

“A lot of people are scared, upset and anxious right now because of the election,” he said. “So it’s a good time to receive support, including from mental health institutions.”

Between paranoia and naivete, between victimization and demonization, there exists a place of practical, healthy equanimity where one can recall that we are all individual human beings governed by the same wants and needs.

“Whatever happens on Nov. 8,” the APA asserts, “life will go on. … Avoid catastrophizing, and maintain a balanced perspective.”

“The lights aren’t going to go off,” Bravmann said. “This is all part of a flow of everyday life, even though it may seem — and can be — dramatic and traumatic. But we move on. We will move on. Obviously, we live in the present … with an eye toward the future.” l

Mathew Klickstein is a reporter with the Baltimore Jewish Times, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.

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