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Clinical psychologist breaks down election stress, ways to cope

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Intensity is at its peak as the clock ticks closer to who will be the next president of the United States.

And it’s weighing on people to the point where doctors have a term for it. They call it election stress, and it refers to the intensity of emotions people are experiencing as a direct result of the impending 2020 decision.

News 8 spoke with IU Health clinical psychologist Dr. Danielle Henderson about how to stay calm during these next 36 hours.

Gillis: Joining us in our newsroom is Dr. Danielle Henderson, clinical psychologist at IU Health, to talk about election anxiety. So, this is a real thing. Tell us about it and who is most affected by it and why?

Henderson: Sure. Election anxiety or a term called election stress disorder was a term that was coined in 2016. It’s not a diagnosable disorder, but it’s used to capture the range of feelings people are experiencing around election time. According to some new data from the American Psychological Association more than 7 in 10 adults call the election a significant source of stress in their lives. In addition, 71% of African Americans said that this election is a source of stress, compared to 46% of African Americans reporting election stress four years ago.

Gillis: Can we tease out stress? There’s the election as a whole. But what about factors and outcomes in terms of this data?

Henderson: From my understanding one thing to think about this year is there’s been a lot of stress. For many of us, the pandemic has been stressful and traumatic. That in and of itself has lifted a lot of emotions, including stress, uncertainty and grief. And we haven’t had outlets for those emotions. We’ve also had social injustice and unrest throughout the country. So, it’s possible going into this election we’re carrying more stress and tension than usual. 

Gillis: Right. It’s just sort of snowballing and getting to a place where things are building upon one another. 

Henderson: Yes. 

Gillis: And there has been outrage and acts of violence we could say. How does someone take a moment before they decide to choose between not doing something or keeping something within or having a healthy outlet for frustration versus action in terms of an outburst or outrage?

Henderson: I am a big proponent of taking a pause. Whatever negative emotion you might be experiencing, whatever stressing emotion you might be experiencing … before we do anything to act on that — implementing a pause. So, feeling the emotion and pausing before we have some sort of response. I think that’s helpful in daily life with lots of experiences that we have, but especially when we think about the election and the next couple weeks might look like for us. Really trying to reflect on that before I have any response or respond in any way. How can I take a pause?

Gillis: And top three tips: How do we alleviate this?

Henderson: I think the first thing is recognizing that this could be a long, drawn-out period. Think about this as a marathon and not a sprint. So, being mindful of the news that you’re consuming and how much. Planning breaks throughout your day. Still planning time with friends and family with whom you feel safe. Practicing your faith, spirituality and values. It’s also important at this time to prioritize your rest, water, food intake and physical movement. Those things can go by the wayside when we’re stressed and intense. And also focusing on things that bring you joy. 

News 8’s medical reporter, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Gillis, D.Ed., is a classically trained medical physiologist and biobehavioral research scientist. She has been a health, medical and science reporter for over 5 years. Her work has been featured in national media outlets. You can follow her on Instagram @reportergillis and Facebook @DrMaryGillis.