‘Election Stress Disorder,’ the Sequel

Feeling overwhelmed this election season? Like, really, really overwhelmed?

You may be suffering from “election stress disorder.”

Symptoms include obsessive refreshing of social media, reading news alerts to anyone who will listen and having a deeply emotional reaction to swing state polling.

Steven Stosny is here to help. Four years ago, the couples therapist coined the term to describe the outpouring of stress, anger and anxiety he was seeing in his practice in Maryland during the 2016 campaign.

Credit…Daniel Rosenbaum for The New York Times

We talked to Dr. Stosny about why election stress has worsened since then, why it’s bad for couples and how to cope. (As usual, our conversation has been edited and condensed.)

Hi! Thanks for chatting. So are we all living through election stress disorder, the sequel, now with more stress and more disorder?

Yeah. The sequel is bigger and badder than the original.

I think the reason it’s worse is because the 2016 election never really ended. This is still a hangover from that. And negative emotion is more contagious than positive emotion.

I am in my 70s. I go back to Nixon and the Kennedy election and there’s always been negativity in politics, but I’ve never seen the voters attacked. Now, whoever would vote for that person wants to ruin our country. That’s a new phenomenon for me.

How are you seeing this in the patients you counsel?

I specialize in chronic resentment, anger and emotional abuse. My business always gets busier around the holidays because people are together more and they drink more. It’s a time when you think you should be happy and realize that you’re not, so they start fighting. But since the 2016 election, it’s really been the holidays all the time.

I’ve never worked so hard in my life, and it’s ratcheted up since the election cycle is much longer now. Social media amplifies and magnifies it, and that keeps it going all the time. So you carry that around with you; it’s on your phone and it’s very hard to escape it.

Also, there’s more entitlement now. People think they have the right to control what other people think. So you’re not just expressing your opinion, you’re devaluing other people’s. And, of course, you always get a negative response when you do that.

Are you seeing more couples coming in with irreconcilable differences over politics?

There is more of that, but that’s not the major thing. See, all that you need with anxiety to make anger is blame. And the law of blame is it goes to the closest person eventually. So you can get upset about something you’re reading in a headline or in social media, and you’re going to take it out on your partner. And that’s mostly what I’m seeing.

So it’s like there’s ambient stress in the air from the election, even if your partner shares your political views?

Yeah. I get surprisingly few couples where one’s a Democrat, one’s a Republican. They are usually the same party. They’re angry at the same people, but they take it out on each other. So it seems like a domestic argument, but it really is being caused by the environmental stress.

What are the warning signs for people that the election is stressing them out a little too much?

The biggest one is irritability. If you get tense thinking about checking the news, that’s a sure sign. What I found with angry people, especially, is that liberals will look at Fox News and conservatives will look at MSNBC to get angry. They want the adrenaline of the anger, so they look at the opposite view.

What makes this different, too, is anxiety about the virus. Whenever there’s uncertainty, that’s going to increase anxiety. And we don’t know how long this is going to last and how bad it’s going to get. People are frustrated from being shut in.

What’s the cure, doc? Is there any hope for us all?

First of all, I try not to talk about politics with people I like. But if they bring it up, try to talk about deeper values rather than political policy, things like compassion, basic humanity and equality, because people tend to agree on those things. The most important thing is to talk respectfully, because people get angry when they feel devalued. If it’s somebody you care about, remember that you’re not disagreeing with just anyone. You’re disagreeing with someone you love, and you have to keep in mind that you still love them even though you disagree with them.

In general, the best antidote is connection. That’s connection to friends, family, communities who share values, and that can be work, school, professional communities, neighborhoods, religious community. I have my couples hug six times a day and hold each embrace for six seconds. That gives them a little oxytocin. It’s a hormone that calms anxiety and makes you feel less paranoid, more trusting of each other.

And empower yourself. Anxiety makes you feel powerless, so stand up for what you believe. Write letters, demonstrate, lobby Congress, whatever works for you, but you’ve got to let go of the result. Empower yourself to obviate the feelings of powerlessness and appreciate your ability to cope. What I tell people to do is to think of bad times before in your life and how well you coped with them. People are a lot more resilient than they believe they will be.

I thought you would tell people to turn off the news, but it sounds like you’re saying the solution might actually be political activism?

I think you have to reduce the news, but you can’t turn it off because then you’ll worry about what’s going on. What I do for myself, and I recommend to clients, is I check it three times a day. I don’t check it at night because I don’t want to think about it at night, but at the end of the workday. Whatever problems were there are going to still be there.

Do you think the end of this election — whenever it happens — will provide any relief?

I’m afraid not because whichever way it turns out, there’s going to be a lot of negative reaction. We’re too polarized.

The environment’s going to get worse, right? You have to build coping mechanisms for it that empower you, that make your life better, rather than trying to control the environment or control what other people think. You’re always going to be powerless when you want to control how other people think and feel.


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