October 30, 2020


How to cope with election-related stress

If you’re feeling uneasy or frustrated this election-season, you are not alone. The American Psychological Association found that many people are citing the 2020 elections as a significant source of stress in their life. To learn more about election-related stress and how to cope with it, listen to latest episode with Jocelyn Carter, associate professor in DePaul’s College of Science and Health and director of clinical training.



​LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download. I'm your host, Linda Blakley, vice president of University Marketing and Communications.

The American Psychological Association recently conducted a survey about peoples' stress levels and the 2020 election. To those that have felt unsettled, tense or anxious: you are not alone. Nearly 70 percent of respondents said the elections are a significant source of stress in their life.

When you add this to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans have been left feeling isolated, uneasy and exhausted. Here to tell us more about election related stress and to give us some tips on how to handle these real-world challenges is Dr. Jocelyn Carter. She is an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology in DePaul's College of Science and Health and Director of Clinical Training.

Welcome Jocelyn, to DePaul Download. I think I speak for many of our listeners when I say we're looking forward to learning more about this topic.

JOCELYN CARTER: Thank you so much, Linda. It's my pleasure to join you this morning.

LINDA BLAKLEY: At the time of this recording, the 2020 Presidential Election has not yet been decided. For many of us, it has felt like a very long election cycle, and this is while we're in the midst of the pandemic and the country is grappling with great racial strife.

Professionally, you've seen this impact peoples' mental health. Is there an official name for what we're experiencing and is it the same as just having a higher level of stress?

JOCELYN CARTER: That's a great question. Thanks for asking, Linda.

So, election stress disorder is the name that some professionals are giving to what we're experiencing now and the phrase actually got coined back in 2016. So, people have been thinking about this for a little while. 

Election stress disorder isn't an actual official diagnosis according to the DSM, which is our handbook for making diagnoses, but I think it's a helpful expression to help us understand what is unique about this particular type of stressor that we're experiencing in the face of the election.

So, there's lots of different anxiety disorders but putting a specific name to it in terms of election stress helps us to get a little bit of a better handle on what we're experiencing now.

LINDA BLAKLEY: What are some of the common symptoms of election stress disorder that people might recognize in themselves?

JOCELYN CARTER: Yes. So, similar to our anxiety disorders and depressive disorders that we have been studying and researching and treating for a long time, election stress disorder can come with a couple different classes of symptoms.

Those can be symptoms of self-protection. So, that can be hyper-vigilance or checking lots of data, and being attuned to potential threats. So, threat in the form of an election would come from having a candidate elected that you believe will cause you or people that you care about significant harm.

So, we also see symptoms of insomnia, trouble sleeping, maybe people overeating, spending more time in bed maybe during the daytime. So, our normal, healthy habits can get disrupted when we're experiencing symptoms of stress. And that leads to a lot of other things like fatigue, tightness.

I also think it's important to mention that there are emotional and cognitive impacts as well. So, some people talk about having trouble concentrating or paying attention, being really indecisive. So, it's hard to make decisions. And then there can be mood swings and yelling and irritability, just general grouchiness for no real specific reason.

So, those can all be symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders in general, but I think with the election coming up, a lot of people are experiencing even more of these symptoms now.

It's almost as if between the election and the pandemic and other pressures, we're facing a triple threat.

JOCELYN CARTER: Absolutely. It can feel like just too much.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Are certain groups of people, such as a specific age or ethnic group, more susceptible to this disorder?

JOCELYN CARTER: Yeah. I appreciate that question because when the pandemic started, I saw a lot of signs that said you know, “we're all in the same – we're all in this together." And we are all in a storm together, but the new phrase that I've been hearing people say is, “we're not all in the same boat."

So, different people and different groups have different abilities to cope with election stress disorder, the racial violence and continued police brutality and the COVID.

So, we've been seeing that like all of our mental health disorders and physical disorders in general, that people who are already at great risk due to their income, so not having the financial resources to weather the storm, having instability in terms of hours being cut or less flexibility, people who already have symptoms of mental health problems, so, maybe they've been experiencing anxiety a lot for a while and this is just another source of the anxiety.

Also, people who identify as people of color. So, especially Black, African American, Hispanic and Asian individuals have been experiencing even more racial discrimination and often times, especially in relation to the election, can actually be retraumatized or retriggered by some of the rhetoric or threats of violence. So, they are very concerned about their own safety and the safety of their loved ones and people that they care about.

So, those groups are at greater risk for sure.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So, we know mental health plays a critical role in one's overall health and wellness. What are the short and long-term effects of this kind of stress?

JOCELYN CARTER: Yeah. That's helpful to think about in terms of short-term versus long-term.

So, the amazing thing about stress and our body's ability to adapt to it is that in the short-term, we tend to go into survival mode. So, we mobilize all of the resources that we have and deal with whatever it is before us. And our body is really good at doing that.

But our body depends on periods of rest and recovery then after that stressor. So, when our stress levels are elevated for a very long time or the hits just keep coming, there is no time for our body to recover and deal with the next thing that comes our way. So, in the short-term, maybe we're able to function pretty well, but eventually if we don't get the chance to reset and cope well, we can see lots of long-term problems emerging.

So, I am concerned about substance use. I am concerned about increased rates of depression, increased rates of actual anxiety disorders that can be formally diagnosed and treated. And I am most concerned about suicide rates.

So, suicide is an awful thing to happen and we're seeing some evidence that suicidal ideations or thoughts of not wanting to be alive and just thinking things would be better off if an individual was dead, those often come when people are experiencing hopelessness and hopelessness when stressors feel uncontrollable and like they're never going to stop is a great risk factor for suicide.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So, what can we do to keep stress levels down if it takes days or even weeks past election night for a winner to be declared?

JOCELYN CARTER: Yeah. That is, that is the question to answer for sure and to be prepared for with this particular election, but really with any stressor that doesn't get resolved really quickly.

So, I think it's helpful for people to try as much as possible to stay in the moment and get out of their heads a little bit. Related to that, I think being aware of screen use, especially with social media and news or whatever form of input that you're, that you're getting, that you're able to monitor and understand for you whether getting this information is helpful. If it's impacting your mood negatively then you may need to limit that.

But for some people, a little bit of information is actually more reassuring, so you might want to give yourself, you know, five minutes to read the headlines and then be done with that.

It's also hard in this virtual world that we're living in to engage in, I say like real, real tasks or activities. So, moving, getting outside. I know with the weather changing, it's a little bit less pleasant to do that now, but really getting in touch with the things that are actually around you and the people that are actually around you.

Another strategy that seems almost like too much to ask but actually is really helpful is trying to each day, focus on identifying at least three good things, and they don't have to be hugely good things, but they can be small, good things. So, maybe you got to share a laugh with a friend or a family member, or saw something really beautiful outside. So, just reminding yourself that there are good things even in the midst of a lot of stress and struggle is really helpful.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So, “Here, We Do," is core to DePaul's mission. What can people do to help others right now, especially since we can't always be in-person due to the ongoing pandemic?

JOCELYN CARTER: Yeah. It's hard to know how to help others but that actually is one of the best things that we can do for ourselves as well. So, it's a double benefit. It's a benefit for the people that we help and it actually does help us feel better to be able to do something.

So, again I would encourage people to think about who is in their sphere of influence right now. So, it may be not the people that you're used to interacting with, but wherever you're located physically, you probably do have neighbors at least that you could wave to or make a sign of encouragement to put in your window so that people can see that.

I've seen a lot of people recommending like running errands for people but it can be hard to take that first step and say like, what kind of help do you need? And then most of us, when someone asks us that out of the blue, we don't really know how to respond.

So, if you can be a little bit more specific and say, “hey, I'm running to Target. Can I pick up an extra roll of toilet paper for you or whatever that is?" Then people are able to receive that help.

And then another thing that I've been trying to do and recommending is just doing something, sending something physical through the mail. So, a card or a note, some piece of good news that will allow you to connect with someone in a slightly different way. It has a physical component with touch and is not just a text. We're used to getting texts, and texts can be great, but a phone call or a card are a nice change as well.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So, one last question for you. The holiday season is quickly approaching and with that comes conversations with family and friends who may not have the same political viewpoints. What strategies do you suggest people use when they are in these types of challenging situations?

JOCELYN CARTER: Yes, and with the holiday season approaching and everyone figuring out what their plans are, our gatherings are probably going to look different. So, we have some ability to select in terms of how we're spending that time.

So, again, I think it is important to have some self-awareness about whether the potential for conflict that you may experience with family and friends that you gather with is worth it.

So, for everyone that is going to be a different decision. But I think if you decided that you're going to spend time with people that don't necessarily agree with you, it's important to focus on all of the reasons that you love them and care about them and what those larger shared values are. So, you can have different strategies for having all kinds of issues but maybe you can agree that you want to treat everyone with kindness or justice or equity. And you can ask people questions about what that means to them.

And I would encourage us to really try to listen to each other's perspectives and ask questions if that's something that you feel like you have the energy to do. And listen not to convince people or to shame people into regretting their decisions or give lots of statistics about what one policy will do versus another or one candidate versus another.

But really listen and if it's too much, just say, “you know what? This isn't a good time to have this conversation. Let's change the topic. Let's do something else."

So, if you feel like it would be helpful to understand, but otherwise, maybe just let it go for this holiday and focus on the joy, hopefully, of gathering together after so much time away.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I appreciate you speaking with me today, Jocelyn. Mental health is so incredibly important under normal circumstances but with so much going on right now, self-care is even more critical. We can all use some help in trying to safely cope not only through this pandemic but as we wait to find out who won the 2020 elections.

And for more information, visit the DePaul Download website where we have posted additional resources suggested by Dr. Carter.

JOCELYN CARTER: Yes. I hope that people will take advantage of all of the resources. There are so many out there, it can be overwhelming to know where to start. But I have provided some really good, helpful ones to help people know where to begin.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I'm Linda Blakley. Thank you for listening to another episode of DePaul Download, presented by DePaul's Division of University Marketing and Communications.

And to everyone listening, please take care.