How to Overcome or Limit ‘Election Stress Disorder’

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November 3, 2020

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A global pandemic. A shaky economy. Social unrest and widespread natural disasters. Could 2020 be any more stressful?  It turns out the answer is: yes. The majority of adults in the U.S. are also experiencing so-called ‘election stress disorder.’

According to a survey published by the American Psychological Association in October, 68 percent of Americans say that the 2020 Presidential election is a significant source of stress in their life. That’s up from 52 percent reported during the 2016 election.

The term election stress disorder is attributed to therapist and author Steven Stosny, Ph.D., who coined it during the contentious election of 2016. While it is not an actual medical diagnosis, it is a real phenomenon marked by increased anxiety, sleep disruptions and difficulty concentrating. 

Don’t count on it disappearing at the stroke of midnight on November 3rd. Some pundits are predicting that the final outcome of the vote may not be known for days, or even weeks, after election day.

With that in mind, the Baptist HealthTalk podcast took a closer look at election stress disorder and how to deal with it. Hosted by Jonathan Fialkow, M.D., chief of cardiology at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute and chief population health officer for Baptist Health, and featuring psychiatrist Rachel Rohaidy, M.D., the conversation centered on healthy strategies for coping during this especially stressful time. Check out the Q&A below for highlights of the episode.

You can access this and other Baptist HealthTalk podcast episodes on your computer or smartphone, or via Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

Dr. Fialkow: “Let’s talk about election stress disorder, as it’s been called by some in the media. How is that affecting the patients you’re seeing?”  

Dr. Rohaidy: “What I’m seeing is just this increase in anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and inundation of information.

“We have this great technology. We have our phones that are basically computers in our hands, right? And so, what I tell people is just to kind of limit, limit the amount of information you’re receiving, limit the amount of time that you’re online and watching news. Remember, we can’t control everything. We can only control us. So, if we can try to limit the amount of information, our inundation, I think that we can really help to mitigate some of these stressful factors.”

Dr. Fialkow: “As a cardiologist, I’m seeing, and I’m sure other physicians are as well, palpitations, not sleeping well, overeating, you mentioned substance abuse. These are real physical concerns, physical manifestations of these stress-related situations. Speak a little bit about that mind/body connection.”

Dr. Rohaidy: “Absolutely. Our minds are connected to our bodies, right? Our brain is connected. There’s no separation between brain and body. So, everything that we’re feeling, we feel throughout our entire body and that stress, that low mood is kind of like the foot on the pedal, on the gas of our runaway stress response system.

“We’re not talking about just a fight or flight moment, right? We’re talking about chronically turned on stress response system. So high levels of cortisol. And that brings a strain to the heart, to our blood vessels.

“We find that we are eating more. So we have more chances of obesity and we’re increasing cholesterol, increasing rates of diabetes, our possibility of stroke. And so, having this stress response system chronically on at high levels all the time, isn’t doing our body any good. And it’s actually bringing on some medical chronic illnesses.”

Dr. Fialkow: “So, what are the kind of things that people can do? What would be some of these coping mechanisms? You already mentioned turning off the TV and social media.

Dr. Rohaidy: “I really have three top things. Number one is setting limits, having time for yourself and not being inundated with all this information. I say that to everyone, I have to practice it myself. Half of the week, I’m home working. When you’re done, you’re done, that’s it. Put away the phone, no more emails, no more social media, no TV, have family time and set those limits and follow those limits. And don’t just set them for yourself, set them for the whole family.”

Dr. Fialkow: “Let’s keep going.”

Dr. Rohaidy: “Okay. The second one is sitting with your emotions, accepting your emotions, right? Taking care of your feelings, being mindful. So, it’s normal to be stressed. It’s normal to be upset. It’s normal to be anxious, right? Sit, realize what you’re feeling and how it affects you physically.

“I think it’s very important to be aware of what is normal and what is not normal. And so, having been presented with a situation and being angry about it, that’s normal. Being stressed about it, that is something normal, but allowing it to ruminate through the day and take up your entire day and you can’t work because of it, and you can’t have dinner with your family because you’re too upset. When it starts kind of bleeding into social functions and work functions, that’s when you have to say, ‘Wait a minute, I need to get help for this. There’s something there that I can’t control. I can’t bring this back. So, I need to reach out to somebody.’ ”

Dr. Fialkow: “So that would be like if you’re avoiding certain things that normally you would take part of, if you’re not getting out of bed in the morning, I mean, something that’s really impacting your normal daily life. Is that a way to look at it?”

Dr. Rohaidy:

Absolutely. And then my last tip is that you’re human, don’t take on too much. You’re human. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to scream. It’s okay to have these feelings. And again, once it starts impacting negatively your life, that’s the point where you say, ‘All right, this is beyond my control now. And now I need to reach out for help.’”

Dr. Fialkow: “We all try to be superhuman and we have to be there for ourselves and family members. And we judge ourselves if we can’t cope, but these are overwhelming times and people should reach out.”

Dr. Rohaidy: “Right. Many times patients say to me, ‘I thought I could do it on my own. I guess I’m not strong enough.’ And I try to always tell them you’re strong because you’ve reached out for help.”

Dr. Fialkow: “Right.”

Dr. Rohaidy: “That’s what gives you strength. It’s not that you’ve fallen. It’s how you pick yourself up.”

Dr. Fialkow: “You and I have talked about this in the past. People should realize with the advent of telemedicine and virtual visits, people could actually get help. They don’t have to leave their home. Are you using telemedicine visits in your practice? Are you seeing others do it as well?”

Dr. Rohaidy: “I am, absolutely. In both of my offices I am seeing patients online and I’m also seeing in person, but it has brought accessibility to people. It takes about 10 years for someone to actually get psychiatric help — to even notice it themselves or actually reach out to a psychiatrist. And I think that now with these new online platforms it’s been accessible and people are reaching out, people are seeing the importance of it.”

Dr. Fialkow: “Anything else you’d like to bring up before we wrap up?”

Dr. Rohaidy: “I think a really important factor for all of us during this really stressful time is going to be really coming together as a family unit, having that family dinner. Children, teens, adults alike, we are inundated with a lot of this stress because of the unprecedented times that we find ourselves in. Having a moment to have a nice dinner with your family — I mean, it doesn’t have to be nice, it could be pizza, It could be whatever you want — but having that moment to actually talk to your family members and coming together, I think it’s going to be really key for us in the coming weeks.”

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