The rancorous presidential campaign between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton is great for cable ratings, but it’s proving to be a challenge to the emotional well-being of people from both sides of the political divide. Throughout the country, some spouses, siblings and friends feel so strongly about the campaign that they’ve stopped talking about it with each other to avoid heated verbal arguments. But plenty of people are talking about their election angst with mental health professionals.
From California to New York, therapists are hearing about the campaign from their patients, many of whom are anxious, frustrated and even angry about the prospect of either Trump or Clinton in the White House. In recent months, about 50 to 90 percent of their patients have brought up the campaign, several therapists say. “I’ve been working as a psychologist since 2005, [and] this is the first time I’ve seen a lot of anxiety about the presidential election,” says Dana Lipsky, who works with individuals and couples in Arlington, a Virginia suburb just outside the District of Columbia. “If I see 22 clients a week, about 15 of them will say something about the election.” Electoral conflicts between spouses or partners have become so heated that Lipsky has counseled some couples to not discuss politics with each other unless it’s in couples therapy. “These disagreements become pretty destructive,” Lipsky says. “Emotions get triggered and people don’t talk for days.”
The fiercely negative tone of the campaign, the high unpopularity ratings of Trump and Clinton, and the fact that both candidates are plagued by various scandals are factors that are roiling the emotional well-being of many people. In fact, Clinton and Trump have both used rhetoric questioning the mental health of the other side. During a campaign appearance in Ohio, Clinton told supporters that if their friends are considering voting for Trump, they should “stage an intervention.” At a rally in Pennsylvania, Trump said of Clinton, “She could be crazy.”
Kevin Byrnes, an employment lawyer in the District of Columbia, is so dismayed by both Trump and Clinton that he sometimes yells at the TV while watching campaign news. Byrnes, 56, has talked about his election stress with his therapist. “To me, it’s like having two alcoholic parents, which I had, fighting at dinnertime and the kids never get fed,” Byrnes says.
Gordon Dillow, 65, a writer and Army veteran in the Phoenix area in Arizona who is not supportive of either candidate, shudders at the prospect of Hillary Clinton as president. "I had enough of the Clintons the first time around," Dillow says. "The idea of having the Clintons back in the White House makes me feel like we’re retreading the 1990s. It feels like we’re going backwards." The election has divided some of his immediate family. "I used to enjoy having political discussions with them, but I can’t any more. The discussions get too emotional."
A Monmouth University poll released in late September says 70 percent of voters believe the election is bringing out the worst in people – inspiring fear, among other emotions. Around early April, when Trump emerged as the clear favorite to become the GOP nominee, some celebrities, such as comedian Jon Stewart and actor Samuel L. Jackson, declared they would leave the country if the real estate mogul became president. During the first week of that month, the search term “How to move to Canada?” spiked dramatically on Google.
For some people, election anxiety is personal. Since the school semester began in September at Dolores Mission School, a Catholic parish grade school in a poor, heavily Latino neighborhood in East Los Angeles, the Rev. Mike Lee has been summoned to the campus at least four times to comfort crying kids who fear authorities would whisk away their undocumented parents if Trump wins. “They said they were afraid their parents would be gone by Christmas,” Lee says.
News of the campaign will no doubt remain ubiquitous until Election Day on November 8, and people will continue to talk about the deficiencies of the candidate they oppose after a winner is determined. Nonetheless, there are specific steps people on both sides of the political debate can take to remain emotionally centered:
Ask your relatives and friends to commit to a ban on election talk. Keep in mind that our relationships with our significant others, relatives and friends will continue after the votes are counted. You can preserve those connections by dropping heated discussions about the campaign. “Long after the election results are in, we need good relationships with our family and friends,” says Dr. Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist and author based in Beverly Hills, California. “Put a stop now to any damage your arguments have caused, and try to repair the damage.”
Go on a political news diet. Consuming too much news about the seemingly never-ending campaign can be bad for your emotional health. Decreasing the amount of time you spend watching and reading election coverage can help you maintain a healthy outlook. “Limit your exposure to media about the election, and don’t consume any political media right before you go to bed,” Lieberman says. “Typically, there is only one breaking news story a day about each candidate that gets repeated endlessly on all media. So you only need to hear it once to satisfy your curiosity.”
Think of the common ground you share with people who have different political beliefs. Think of the reasons you like your significant other, friends and relatives that have nothing to do with politics. Do not define another person by which candidate he or she supports or opposes. “As you’re judging someone, think, ‘How is this person just like me?’” says Joe Burton, founder and CEO of Whil Concepts, Inc., a San Francisco-based firm that provides digital mindfulness, leadership and yoga training. “They probably want to help the country and the underprivileged. It helps take the edge off the anger.”
Engage in mindfulness. Paying attention to your immediate surroundings can take your mind off the negativity of the election and help foster a sense of well-being. “Tune your attention to something in your sensory environment, like the sound of a fan or the running of water; pair the sound of the above with a deep, diaphragmatic breath,” Lipsky says. “Allow yourself to focus just on the sound you hear and your breath, while acknowledging your thoughts and letting them calmly drift away by redirecting your attention back to the sound of the water. Mindfulness fosters relaxation, decreased feelings of anxiety, greater focus and overall well-being.”
Spend time in an isolated spot where there’s no TV or radio reception. Spending even a short amount of time in nature, away from the constant cacophony of campaign news, can provide a much-needed respite from the campaign. “Even if you can’t manage an African safari, you can surely find a nice cabin in the woods where you will be cut off from the craziness and get back to basics,” Lieberman says. In a suburb of Portland, Oregon, Lou Churchville, 69, developed his own version of this approach when he started taking a daily hourlong walk in the woods about six months ago to exercise his campaign frustrations away, “It’s a form of meditation for me,” Churchville says. “It helps me keep perspective on what I can do and what I can’t.”