Dealing with post-election stress and anxiety

by Laraina Hailey

If you’re feeling a bit more anxiety than what is normal for yourself, and aren’t we all, relax. You’re not alone — unless, of course, you’re alone because of social-distancing. In that case, you are alone, but that’s something else entirely. 

Anyway, it turns out that mental health professionals are helping get the word out about election-related stress and depression because a lot of people are feeling like you. It’s not a new thing, and yes, this is a serious health issue.

By now we all know that our bodies are not designed to manage a constant supply of the stress hormone known as cortisol. As the body’s primary stress hormone, cortisol increases blood glucose levels that in turn help fuel our fight or flight instincts. 

And that is a good thing — but in moderation. You see, humans weren’t designed for extended periods of fight or flight. To survive, we either overpowered a predator or we reacted faster and got away from the immediate danger. That’s it. Our brains then turned off the cortisol fuel. 

These days, though, we seem hell-bent on trying to override our biological design by leaving the gas, er… cortisol, turned up high for extended periods of fight or flight. And this oversupply of cortisol is damaging.

Most of us recognize that we are enduring one of the more stressful years in recent memory. The profound changes that COVID-19 have wreaked upon the world continue to manifest themselves in devastating, and often fatal, ways. 

And, adding fuel to the fire is the fact that none of us can escape the non-stop coverage of Election 2020. Yep, it seems to be a never-ending struggle to defend the outcome of something that should have been simple — you got the most votes, therefore, you’re the winner.  

Yet, reactions to the results of the recent election illustrate the bitter divisiveness within our country, and our bodies and minds are paying the price for this non-stop fighting. We have post-election stress, and it can make us physically ill and plunge us into depression if we’re not careful.

A recent survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of the American Psychological Association (APA) reported that 68 percent of U.S. adults said the 2020 election is a significant source of stress. This is an increase of 16 percent when compared to the 2016 election. To be fair, though, this shouldn’t surprise anyone given the extreme polarization of every issue this year. 

We’d expect to see some disappointment from those whose votes did not create a large enough majority for their candidate to win. The Google Trends data on depression-related searches spiked following the 2008, 2016, and current elections. However, it’s not just the supporters of the losing candidate that are suffering. Post-election stress is not as simple as winning or losing. 

Four very long yearsThe record turn-out of voters this election did not happen by chance. The last four years have been a seething cauldron of stress-inducing events — events that have played out in our daily lives for four very long years.

These events have forced us to reevaluate our mental constructs (which is not an easy task). These events have separated us from family and friends. These events have joined us together into groups that gave our lives a new purpose. 

Through the good and bad of it all, it’s been four years of near-constant fight-or -flight hormones coursing through our veins and wearing down our mental and physical defenses. 

And now that the election is over, save for those down-ballot candidates in 2021 run-off elections, why are we feeling depressed? 

Grief over a candidate’s loss is an obvious reason for those on the losing side. 

One of the more insidious causes, though — especially in light of the isolation brought about by COVID-19 restrictions — is a loss of connectedness to a cause that needed YOU. You, individually. You, the person isolated by COVID-19 were no longer alone. You, the singular person, mattered. 

Because, you, or at least your vote, were essential to the protection of a nation in dire straits. Your voice was important, and you were encouraged to join the collective scream of a nation. 

You didn’t require an invite to join this group, you were granted membership simply by registering to vote and engaging with social media. Your devices were inundated with messages reminding you to JOIN US and be a part of something monumentally important. You were connected. You had found a cause to fight for and a place to belong. And the pinnacle of all of this was election night and the days that followed.

But now, you may feel disconnected. Your vote has been cast and the election has been called — your connection is no longer required. So, now what? 

It’s that abrupt feeling of loss of connection to a group that can exacerbate an already stressful time for many people. This sense of disconnectedness can be especially harsh for those who are isolated from peer groups at work or school due to COVID-19 restrictions. So, how do you reduce this post-election stress?

The most important thing you can do to reduce feelings of isolation seems counterintuitive — avoid social media. Due to lax policing of social media policies, all platforms are rife with posts based on untruths, hate speech, and violence-inciting messages.

These posts can make you feel you are reconnected to the same cause which you fought long and hard to support, but they will only add to your anxiety and feelings of being disconnected. Trust us — you don’t want to be a part of this rage-filled group. 

Resume the exercise or other physical activities that you may have paused while contributing to your cause or candidate. We all know the benefits of moving — so do anything, except walking to the fridge or pantry, that gets you moving. 

Recognize that the symptoms of post-election stress (anger, anxiety, and sadness) can manifest themselves in unhealthy binge eating, excessive drinking, and trouble falling and staying asleep. 

Get back to healthy eating patterns — everyone knows eating chips out of a bowl with a spoon isn’t healthy. We also know that stream-binging until 4 a.m. isn’t going to help with the ol’ mood either — so, get back into the habit of a regular bedtime, too. 

Reach out to friends and family who have moved on from the election. Share your challenges and don’t be afraid to talk about how your health is suffering. After all, you may just be the cause that person is needing right at this moment in their lives. They too may be disconnected and be searching for a purpose again. Be that purpose.

Last, but certainly not least, give yourself a break. Take some time to reflect on the effort it took to stay engaged and to step out of your comfort zone to make a change for the whole of society. Do not allow yourself to be guilted into thinking your effort was easy because of who you are, or that your pain or discomfort is not valid because others are suffering too. 

Hey, pain is pain. Sadness is sadness. And ultimately, you made the choice to make a difference. You helped carry your cause and your candidate. You were, and are, so much more than your vote. YOU really do matter.

Laraina Hailey

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