Like many Americans, Micah Weinberg is counting the days until the November election is over.
He’s exhausted by the onslaught of political news coming out of the presidential race, most of it relaying the latest off-color comment or personal attack caught on tape. He’s lost sleep because he can’t stop checking his phone for headlines that inevitably sadden or anger him. And while working at the Bay Area-based health think tank that he heads, he rides the roller coaster of every poll result that flashes across his screen, anguishing over how it reflects on his favored candidate.
“The inability to get away from the really negative, constant flow of information is unlike anything I’ve experienced in my entire life,” the 40-year-old Democrat said. “We cannot isolate ourselves from the news – it’s this constant bombardment of negative information, and that’s tiring, frankly. My cellphone is just this source of poisonous information about the world.”
This election season, the fiery faceoff between presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has rankled Americans of all political stripes, trickling down to the collective psyche in a way that experts say is unprecedented.
The possibility of a Trump administration has inspired fear among Muslims, Mexican Americans and other groups targeted in the Republican’s speeches, and Clinton supporters decry what they say is Trump’s disregard for such hallmarks of American government as an independent judiciary and a peaceful transfer of power.
Trump supporters worry that the kind of election rigging their candidate has suggested is occurring will block the Republican from the White House. Many also feel strongly in tune with the vision of the country that Trump describes in his speeches, one mired in runaway crime, terrorism and Clinton-spawned corruption.
While voter anxiety spikes with every election cycle, everyday Americans and health experts alike said the inflammatory rhetoric used by Trump, as well as the hard-nosed responses of Clinton and other Democrats, have tested marriages and friendships, dominated sessions in therapist offices and just plain tired people out this year.
There’s even a name for the feeling – election stress disorder. The term, coined this spring by Washington-based psychologist Steven Stosny, describes the negativity that people carry in their day-to-day lives while following the presidential race.
Election stress may not be affecting people to the point of clinical diagnosis, but it’s certainly taking a toll on their mental well-being, said Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, which studies the theory and practice of well-being.
“What’s unique about this election is the polarity between the candidates and the extent to which it’s promoted an identity that’s hostile toward the ‘out group,’ ” Simon-Thomas said. “Both sides feel like the other side is particularly threatening. … When you feel that there are a bunch of people out there who want to harm you – and the rhetoric of this election presents that – that is an anticipatory stress.”
Mitch Darnell, a Sacramento therapist, said the election has been a main talking point for many of the clients at his private practice.
“I see a lot of anger and tension in clients, which you never see with elections, generally,” Darnell said. “There’s more hatred toward the candidates than I’ve ever seen.”
There’s more hatred toward the candidates than I’ve ever seen.
Mitch Darnell, a Sacramento therapist
In a poll of registered voters conducted by The Washington Post this summer, about 70 percent of respondents said the thought of Trump winning the election made them anxious, while about 50 percent said the same of Clinton.
Mone’t Ha-Sidi, a 34-year-old Sacramento hair stylist, said her stress has gotten so bad that she’s started taking blood-pressure medication. As a black woman with a Muslim last name, Ha-Sidi said, she has been barraged with hurtful commentary on social media since Trump’s campaign began. During the campaign, Trump has proposed banning people from Muslim countries from entering the United States and has blamed everyday Muslims for failing to turn over terrorists.
“This election has empowered people who I would say were casually racist or xenophobic to be more outward about it,” Ha-Sidi said. “I feel like our world is spinning backwards right now. ... I am truly scared.”
At the Sacramento County Republican Party headquarters, Carl Burton, president of the Republicans of River City, said he’s doubling his efforts to rally Trump supporters out of fear that Clinton will take office. In particular, he said, he’s worried the Democrat will raise his taxes if she’s elected.
“I’ve lived through a lot of elections, and sometimes my predictions come true and sometimes they don’t,” said the retired 70-year-old. “I don’t know if they’ll come true this time. … I’m doing everything I can to put the Republican candidate forward.”
Agree to disagree?
Darnell said the recent presidential debates, with their constant contradictions and challenges of basic facts, have confused some people to the point of identity crisis. Others have responded in such aggressive ways that they have alienated loved ones.
“People who are confused and don’t know what to do, they feel stupid,” Darnell said. “People are being called out to say who are you, what do you stand for.”
Kara Cummins, 53, of Rancho Cordova said she hadn’t yet settled on whom to vote for but still avoids getting into political discussions with friends and family, worried that it will damage relationships unnecessarily. Most of all, she said, she’s feeling the pressure to make a decision at this eleventh hour.
“It’s really freaking me out,” she said. “I’m just trying to absorb everything that’s happening and hear what both candidates have to say. It’s a lot to take in.”
The political overload has also been sparking arguments in workplaces, according to a September study by the American Psychological Association. Their survey of about 1,000 working adults found that at least 1 in 10 felt tense or cynical at work, or have been less productive than usual because of the political discussions going on around them. Among workers age 18 to 34, that number jumped to a quarter reporting they felt isolated from their co-workers or had had an argument about politics at work.
As hard as it might be, Simon-Thomas recommends trying to simply treat other people with civility, even if you disagree with their political beliefs. Sometimes, she said, it’s best just to agree to disagree, and move on.
At a most fundamental level, everyone in the room is trying to figure out a way to be happy. Sure, people have different ideas about how to get there and they might say things that seem hurtful, but it’s important to realize that you seem that way to them, too.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center
“At a most fundamental level, everyone in the room is trying to figure out a way to be happy,” she said. “Sure, people have different ideas about how to get there and they might say things that seem hurtful, but it’s important to realize that you seem that way to them, too.”
Unplug, take action
Ha-Sidi said she used to spend a lot of time on Facebook posting about racial equality, minimum wage and other issues close to her heart. However, the resulting nasty comments and online debates have pushed her to unfriend about 200 people since the start of the election season.
Now, she said, she just tries to move past political arguments she sees online.
“I’ve used that block feature pretty liberally,” Ha-Sidi said. “You’re doing nothing but trying to derail the conversation. People want to hide behind their opinions as fact. If your opinion dehumanizes other people, then it’s not something I want to listen to.”
Mental health experts recommend people follow Ha-Sidi’s example – just take a break from the internet a few times a day and rebalance by meditating, going for a walk or doing anything else that can take your mind off the election.
“If you look at social media for hours a day, it can be intense,” Simon-Thomas said. “Professional sports rivalries are fun stress – it’s different from something that could have a marked impact on your livelihood and your life going forward. … Spending time with close friends and talking about what’s making you feel stress – those all are helpful in response to anything, from being worried about a threatening political future to losing your job.”
Simon-Thomas also encourages people to channel their election stress into action. Getting engaged in some kind of impactful political or social activity can help people feel more involved in the causes they care about.
“Watching this unfurl in front of us, it’s easy to feel powerless and stressed,” she said. “We can let that build up in a way that’s harmful, or we could try to become more aware and realize what we can really do in this moment. Engage politically, vote, be part of the process. That’s a way to listen to that stress, and know the arousal is there to alert you.”