What is election anxiety and how can consumers manage it?

How to cope with feeling anxious during this unusual presidential election cycle

More so than the last presidential election — or arguably any election in American history— the divisive 2020 presidential race has incited an overwhelming sense of anxiety among Americans, according to a poll conducted by the American Psychological Association.

Nearly 70% of U.S. adults, regardless of political affiliation, indicated that the 2020 presidential election is a source of stress, a significant increase from 52% of U.S. adults who responded the same in 2016.

Generation Z, the name given to people born after the year 1997, and millennials are particularly feeling increased mental health repercussions due to concerns surrounding the country’s future, according to a survey conducted by the Maple Counseling Center.

“It’s monumentally the most important election of our lifetime,” Sydney Ross, a junior majoring in political science, said, emphasizing a common refrain among students who worry about the influence this election will hold in determining how the country will progress.

Following the unexpected outcome of the 2016 election, couples therapist Steven Stosney labeled this mounting sense of unease during the election cycles as “election stress disorder.”

Though not a real diagnosable disorder, the term is used to describe the angst and uncertainty many may feel today.

“We have the coronavirus pandemic, economic uncertainty, and social justice pushes coupled with general historic trends of affective polarization,” said Kamy Akhavan, executive director of the USC Center for the Political Future.

It’s no surprise, Akhavan said, that 75% of university students are reporting high levels of stress around this election. To cope with such emotions, Akhavan suggests students “unplug” from media consumption.

Consumers are more susceptible now than ever to becoming mesmerized by a never-ending news cycle that instigates both worry and reassurance, reports Psychology Today magazine.

Psychology Today said that when people are feeling stressed, they tend to crave reassurance, thereby resorting to favorable news sources or spending time “doomscrolling,” a term used to describe endlessly scrolling through social media in search for reassurance.

Social media echo chambers often reinforce our own political beliefs and vilify others', thereby exacerbating the “us versus them” mentality that contributes to election-related stress, says Akhavan.

In fact, nearly 40% of adults reported feeling stressed from political or cultural discourse on social media, according to another study conducted by the APA.

“Constant news consumption degrades our perception of the world,” Akhavan said.

If the news is constantly bombarding us with problems and issues, it’s not shocking that many feel stressed, he said. Akhavan recommends media consumers monitor and limit news intake and spend 20 minutes at the beginning and end of the day to stay informed.

Connecting with others is another way to cope with election stress, Akhavan said. He suggests connecting with friends or family members in order to “remind us that there is life beyond this election.”

Most importantly, “breathe,” Akhavan said. “As silly as it sounds...it will replenish, recharge, and bring down the cortisol levels in our bodies.”

Public relations graduate student Micaela Stevens has a more practical solution. To cope with election stress, Stevens suggests taking proactive steps to remediate any anxious feeling. For Stevens, this includes being civically engaged, phone banking and getting involved.

“Voting is the best thing you can do,” says Stevens. “Knowing you contributed will relieve some anxiety.”