I have a stress problem that has lasted for many months. Lately, I’ve been searching for a reason to explain it. I have what many older adults dream of: a peaceful retirement where much of my time is under my control, which is why my rising level of stress is so puzzling.
It finally hit me today that one situation looms over all others to raise my anxiety, something that is completely out of my control: the 2016 presidential election.
I did a Google search to find out if my friends and I were the only ones who felt this way. It turns out I’m not. Here’s a headline from an article in The Atlantic, May 24, 2016, by Robinson Meyer: “How to Preserve Your Mental Health Despite the 2016 Election.” And from the Washington Post, September 26, “Feeling anxious ahead of the debate? Here’s how to cope with ‘Election Stress Disorder.’” The Post article opens with: “By now it has been well documented that this presidential election cycle has had a particularly negative effect on Americans’ mental health.”
The American Psychological Association polled 927 U. S. working adults in August and found that “more than 1 in 4 younger employees reported feeling stressed out because of political discussions at work, and more than twice as many men as women said political talk is making them less productive.”
According to The Atlantic piece, “experts stressed that anxiety about an outcome or existential threat is completely normal.” However, in the same article, the writer cites clinical psychologist Stephen Holland, who makes a distinction between “productive and unproductive anxiety.” Unproductive anxiety occurs in situations you can’t take action to change.
In the same article, other therapists share tips for living with election stress, none of which is a new idea: accept your emotions, focus on what you can control, focus on the present, meditate. The one piece of advice I appreciated most came from a psychologist named Robert Leahy. Leahy encouraged worriers to focus on the structural limits of American government. “Think about the constraints or limits that all politicians face—for example, Congress and The Supreme Court. If you fear Trump, keep in mind that he won’t be able to do a lot of what he claims he wants to do,” he said. Now that’s a thought that brings me comfort in this period of pre-election unease, that and the hope I won’t experience post-election unease.