Mental health during an election year

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Medically reviewed by
Corey Pitts, MA, LCMHC, LCAS, CCS
Updated May 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Election years can be a particularly tough time for people. A constant exposure to politics-related content through news feeds and social media can take a toll on one’s emotional, mental, and physical well-being. Heightened emotions around political topics can also lead to strained relationships between friends, family, and coworkers.
If you are concerned about the impact the upcoming election may have on your health, it might be helpful to better understand the effects of stress during this time, as well as strategies to combat political anxiety.
What toll can election-related stress take on your mental and emotional health?
Some people may think of stress negatively. However, certain types of stress may be helpful. The human body and the brain are designed to respond to acute stressors. For example, early humans learned to react quickly to escape predators, ensuring survival. Short bursts of stress can stimulate and strengthen the brain like a workout can stimulate and strengthen the muscles.
However, election stress doesn’t often cause a short burst. Election season can last for months, and with candidates declaring their intentions to run earlier and earlier in the election primary cycle, this process may stretch into years. Political news can be a significant source of anxiety, and the longer a person is exposed to a stressor, the more likely they may be to experience chronic stress and burnout, which can lead to depression and anxiety.
Chronic stress, as opposed to acute stress, can have a serious and detrimental impact on several aspects of health, including mental, emotional, and physical health. The body and brain may struggle to handle a constant barrage of high-stress situations. Below are a few of the effects of chronic stress, including election-related stress.
Physical impacts
Physical impacts of chronic stress and burnout might include:
Difficulty sleeping
Changes in eating patterns
Heart palpitations
Excessive sweating
Low energy levels
Gastrointestinal issues like heartburn or diarrhea
An increased risk of heart attack and other cardiovascular complications
Ringing in the ears
Trembling or shaking, especially in the extremities, like one’s hands
Tense muscles
Joint pain
High blood pressure
Hormonal changes, such as an increase in cortisol levels or a decrease in testosterone levels
Emotional impacts
Emotional impacts of chronic stress might include:
Thoughts of hopelessness or helplessness
Increased interpersonal conflict with family, friends, coworkers, or a partner
Mood swings
Emotional avoidance
Nervousness
Hostility
Irritability
Aggression
Emotional reactivity
A sense of overwhelm
Mental and behavioral impacts
In some cases, stress can impact behavior and cognitive functioning. Below are a few symptoms one might experience:
Difficulty maintaining concentration
Symptoms of depression and anxiety, plus a heightened risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Constant worrying
Increased forgetfulness
Decreased or impaired judgment
Difficulties with impulse control
Increased substance use
Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
Distancing oneself from loved ones
Suicidal thoughts
These impacts of chronic stress during an election year have become so widespread that some mental health professionals have begun to use the informal term “election stress disorder.” While election stress disorder is not an official mental health condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), labeling the particular stress response people may exhibit during election season may help therapy providers tailor personalized care.
If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text 988 to talk to a crisis provider over SMS. They are available 24/7 to offer support. 988 also offers an online chat for those with an internet connection.
Tips to set boundaries and avoid dwelling on the political climate
Avoiding election stress can be challenging when political news seems constantly available and discussed. Some people may also be conflicted about avoiding election-related information, as they may view full engagement with the political process as their civic duty. Despite these complications, there are some steps you can take to protect your mental health and well-being during an election year.
Be intentional
You might have a sense of obligation to engage with political content, as understanding the candidates, the issues, and the climate might be important to you as a component of being an informed voter. However, you can choose to set boundaries by choosing not to participate in 24/7 news consumption.
Checking in on political updates once a day or once a week could ensure you stay involved in the election but are not constantly exposing yourself to politics-related stressors. It can also be helpful to pay attention to where you receive your news. Engaging with political content on social media platforms often comes with the added tension of abrasive or inflammatory commentary. Sticking to unbiased and trusted news outlets may be the most effective choice.
Practice self-care
Taking care of yourself can be crucial but may be even more essential during heightened stress, like election season. The following self-care practices may help you stay grounded and mentally healthy while the election progresses:
Maintain a regular sleep schedule. Practicing sleep hygiene can involve going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time every day, creating a bedtime routine, and distancing yourself from screens a few hours before bed, which may have the added benefit of encouraging you to take a break from the news and social media.
Eat nutritious foods: Consuming meals based on nutrition may help you moderate some of your body’s stress response.
Lean on your support system: Friends, family members, and loved ones can be a source of emotional well-being during a stressful time. However, if political tensions are divisive between you and your loved ones, it might be beneficial to put a moratorium on political conversation, at least until the election is over.
Exercise regularly: An exercise routine can lead to several health benefits and may help you directly counteract some of the physical impacts of stress, such as cardiovascular concerns.
Explore the impact of election-related stress with a professional
Chat with a licensed counselor
Therapy
In some cases, processing stress with a neutral third party may be beneficial. Talking to a therapist about your election-related concerns or any other life complications you may be experiencing can be a helpful way to gain a sense of perspective.
With all the regular strains of day-to-day life combined with the stress of an election year, it might be particularly challenging to make time in your schedule for an additional in-person obligation. Online therapy may be a beneficial alternative. With support through a platform like BetterHelp, you can schedule appointments at your convenience, including during the evenings or on weekends, and attend appointments from the comfort of your home. In addition, you can send messages to your therapist throughout the week, receiving a response when they are available.
Research has demonstrated that online therapy and traditional in-person therapy may have similar outcomes. One recent peer-reviewed study found that attending online therapy sessions could reduce stress symptoms in a group of participants. If you are worried about the toll chronic election stress may be taking on your body and brain, consider reaching out to a provider.
Takeaway
Election-related stress may be a form of chronic stress, which can have a significant impact on areas of well-being, potentially leading to election stress disorder. To learn strategies to prioritize your mental health during an election year, consider contacting a therapist for personalized guidance.**


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