Monday, October 17, 2016

The Big Election and Your Mental Health

Another big election, and it isn't pretty. Or easy to watch.

Democratic and Republican nominees bombard us with negative campaigns, fear-based rhetoric and constant press conferences. Nominee's speeches are generally scripted to persuade and influence - and are often peppered with an underlying message of danger... and that the only answer to ease your worry is to vote for them.

Other political groups find ways to shake up the electoral process by leaking videos or launching negative stories for their own interests. And then there's the news, broadcast television, social media and internet websites that perpetuate the negative campaigning atmosphere by telling sensational stories, challenging the opinion of others or poking at issues that challenge us as a country: unemployment, immigration, money, health, education. Before long, the general public splinters into polarizing groups. 

The negativity keeps rolling on and on - and research tells us that it not going to get any better anytime soon. You see, emotions win elections. Though positive campaigning can heighten your feelings on enthusiasm and hope, it's fear, anger and anxiety that gets you in the voting booth. You're more likely to make sure to get out and vote if you worry that you'll lose things in election times.

Why It's Stressful

The reason the general public's mental health is challenged is because negative campaigning heightens stress. And when your body is faced with stress, particularly fear-based stress, the adrenal glands secrete glucocorticoid hormones to help you cope. Specifically, your body launches cortisol to help you get away from danger, where your heart rate increases, blood flow goes to everything you need to run away or fight. This fight-flight response is meant for short term stress - and becomes wearisome if it's elongated. You'll eventually get irritable, anxious, and even depressed because you are in a prolonged "state of emergency." And during the long campaign season, that's exactly what happens.

Tips To Reduce Anxiety and Depression

I encourage my patients to follow these tips to help bolster mental well being, and I also practice what I preach. I do all of the following each and every year before the campaign season begins
Limiting your exposure to media. Turn off the television, power down from the internet. Give yourself a break from negative campaigning. I rarely watch broadcast news anymore, and when I do, I generally watch news shows that give an overview of the day's highlights. This way I can stay informed without getting overloaded by too much drama.
Choose print media: If you have to plug into election news, consider choosing print media rather than visual media. This can reduce the likelihood that you'll get exposed to emotionally laden material. You can always put down the paper or turn the page.
Take charge. Remember that you have the power to turn off the remote, link out of a website or change the radio station. Don't let yourself be passive when you feel negative campaigning is overwhelming you.
Know your limits. Other people will have a different tolerance for election issues than you. If you've reached a saturation point, where you don't want to talk about politics, make your feelings known, walk away or change the subject. Try to avoid getting into political debates or wasting your passion about issues to a person who doesn't share your beliefs. 
Feed your senses. Consider having an electronic-free day. Unplug from the phone, the computer and don't watch television or linger on social media. Let your senses take in the simpler things in life. Shift your focus to your loved ones, and invite pleasant experiences into your day. 
Vote early. Did you know that one out of three voters in the 2012 presidential election voted at home rather than at traditional polling places?  And did you know that research shows that those who vote at home experience significantly reduced stress? When campaign season rolls along, get your absentee ballot - or if your state has online voting, get registered. I've been voting early for years now, and I know it helps me feel grounded and empowered, instead of stressed with getting to the polls on election day.

Brader, T. "Striking a responsive chord: How political ads motivate and persuade voters by appealing to emotions." American Journal of Political Science 49.2 (2005): 388-405.

Neiman, J., et al. "Can the Stress of Voting Be Reduced? A Test within the Context of the 2012 US Presidential Election." APSA 2013 Annual Meeting Paper. 2013.

Waismel-Manor, I., et. al."When endocrinology and democracy collide: Emotions, cortisol and voting at national elections." European Neuropsychopharmacology 21.11 (2011): 789-795.

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