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Puget Sound medical experts offer advice on managing election stress

Trays of ballots in King County. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Trouble sleeping, mysterious tummy aches, a general feeling of anxiety? Maybe it’s election stress disorder. Mercer Island MD Dr. Gordon Cohen joined Seattle’s Morning News to discuss.

“Well, tomorrow is the big day, and there’s so much anxiety right now over this particular election. There is a concept called election stress disorder, and it isn’t really a scientific diagnosis, but the concept itself is really quite real. It’s an experience of overwhelming anxiety, and it really shows up in a number of different ways,” he said.

“It’s typically the way that people experience stress in their bodies — they feel tension, whether it’s in their head or their shoulders, stomach issues, they get headaches, trouble sleeping, tossing and turning, having bad dreams. And a lot of people are having this right now about the election,” he added. “What’s interesting is that the American Psychological Association does a regular survey to try and determine how affected people are by this. And right now, in 2020, approximately two thirds or 68% of American adults say that the U.S. presidential election is a significant source of stress in their lives.”

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Part of the anxiety isn’t simply due to the election itself, but fears of what will follow, in terms of social unrest, and that the result they don’t like is a threat to their way of life.

“In contrast to this, only 52% said the same thing before the 2016 election. I actually saw a poll yesterday that said that 75% of people expect there to be some degree of social unrest following the election results … given what we’ve seen over the past year, it’s hard to imagine that that won’t be the case. So I think that people have a lot of anxiety over that and you can see that businesses are preemptively boarding themselves up,” he said.

“I also think that the country itself has become so politically divided to one extreme or another that people really feel that whatever the outcome of this election is, that it’s a true threat to their own way of life and I think that has increased the anxiety tremendously because you feel like you really have something to lose.”

For UW School of Medicine’s Assistant Dean of Wellness Anne Browning, part of the issue is to not always be on your phone stressing yourself by over-indulging in political news.

“I’ve debriefed with a lot of colleagues who have used the term ‘doom scrolling,’ where you just kind of find yourself on a device and you’re stuck on it,” she told KIRO Radio. “Before you click to view some video or read an article, actually pause and just ask yourself the question, ‘Will reading this or watching this actually improve my well being? Or is it likely to make me feel worse with more stress, more anxiety?’” she said.

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While it may sound a bit strange, Dr. Cohen says experts recommend imagining that one candidate or the other has won as a mind exercise, and then come up with a plan for dealing with your emotions should that be the outcome.

“One of the recommendations from a lot of experts is just thinking about it,” he said. “And also, if your candidate doesn’t win, rather than being angry and aggressive toward the other side, try to understand why people chose the candidate other than yours, and try to work with them, to learn from them. People are allowed to have an opinion that differs from you. That’s what makes society interesting.”

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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