Anxiety Client-centered Therapy Counseling election anxiety presidential election Psychology Racism

Election Anxiety

Election Anxiety

Seattle Direct Counseling | Presidential Election Anxiety Fears

Blue and white box with slit for ballots on a sidewalk.
An official ballot box for the Nov 8 elections stands ready to receive ballots on a Seattle street.

I wasn’t even sure I wanted to write about Election Anxiety, or ‘Election Distress Disorder’ (not a real DSM-V disorder).

Because of the ethics of my profession, I consider it a solemn duty in this season to listen to all my clients in a non-judgmental manner; to do anything less dishonors our profession and the work we each do to hear ourselves and apply ourselves at whatever level of free agency that we can.

After nearly 17 years of doing therapy in the Seattle area, I have concluded that the current presidential election campaign is the most talked about campaign of my career. It’s also the most controversial, and the topics that have been stirred up have affected all peoples on either side of the political aisle, as well as those who have chosen to depart from all the mainstream political parties.

Yet, I am not here to talk about the particulars of the campaigns. I want to talk about what the campaign has done to us, what it has forced upon the table. It is being called collectively, “Election Anxiety”, an anxious reaction to the fears, racism, misogyny, and verbal bullying that our nation has witnessed on our television screen, computer monitors, and smart devices in the form of video, news articles, audio sound bytes, and Social Media response.

It’s not that any of these topics are new. The sheer volume, however, is new. For example, I have been called the derogatory term, “chink,” many times in my adult lifetime. Yet, the number of derogatory terms directed at my fellow Latino and Latina friends has exponentially exploded this year.

A year ago, we weren’t even using that terminology, “Election Anxiety.” Now, it’s a ‘thing’. A real thing.

I am not alone in naming this ‘thing’. In an article from the New York Times,  Social Workers and Licensed Mental Counselors across the country are reporting an increase of clients asking to talk about the elections during therapy in the form of anxious and fearful thoughts.

And now, Election Anxiety has come to my office is in the form of requests about how thoughts regarding bullying, misogyny, racism, and micro aggressions in the workplace might be handled.

Read on for more about Election Anxiety.

What This Election Has Done To Us

On the strangely positive side of what this election campaign cycle has done to us is remarkably clear. These are generalized observations.

  1. It’s caused us to become politically active vs apathetic. I have watched people who have never been politically active in the past dive into the process with previously unknown energy and fervor.
  2. It has caused us to become vocal. People are talking politics and not hiding their opinions behind a desire for privacy.
  3. The language being used to describe both sides of the main political parties have been more rough, lewd, and rude than has ever been previously seen in public political debate. The boxing gloves are “off.”
  4. The political context has prompted otherwise disgruntled voters, who were once silent, to use the technologies available through their smart phones, cameras, and applications in an all-out, consumer-driven, new media war. This aspect was not as fine tuned  in the beginning of the Obama administration as it is right now.
  5. The virtual has become more real than the real. For example, the appearance of a fact that could be believable if timed and marketed has become more important  than fact checking. Another important point: people are saying they do not know who to trust.
What Can You Do About Election Anxiety

There are at least four actions you can take if you have noticed that you are experiencing debilitating anxiety concerning the upcoming elections.

  1. Talk with people who know you, who listen well, and to whom you can entrust your thoughts and feelings. Make it clear that you want to talk about how you feel, rather than the specific issues of the campaign.

For example, if you have experienced anxiety because you are a woman and you disagreed with the commentary of a particular candidate regarding the treatment of women, women’s rights, women’s roles, or women’s equality, make the conversation about those things, and less about the specific candidates. Talk about your concerns and fears. Direct the conversation to these feelings if the dialogue begins to drift.

2.  Write down a plan. What actions do you want to take to help you experience responsible progress towards what you feel are your most important values? Besides voting before November 8, 2016, is there anything else you want to do? Do you want to write your congressman or congresswoman? Do you want to attend a town hall meeting to discuss finer points? Do you wish to join a league of like-minded people to tackle a specific part of your value system you believe needs defending? Do you want to be alone on election night, or would you prefer to be gathered with a few friends and family?

Write down one action you can take towards each goal, and do it.

3. Create a routine that you can sustain. Clients have mentioned to me that they have become overwhelmed with political emails, commentary, and posts. If you can’t sustain that much information coming at you, and it’s causing you to feel overwhelmed, consider turning the fire hydrant of information down to a more manageable trickle, or  limit your attention to these channels to a specific time of day,  and a limited time, at that.

For example, in order for me to treat and care for my clients, I’ve made a reasonable plan to not check my emails and Social Media outlets whenever I am commuting to and from my office, even though I ride public transit, in the month of November. Why? Because these are important times to ground myself in order to attend to and care for others, not subject myself to an endless barrage of political discourse, name calling, and inflammatory remarks. My choice is not because I don’t care; it’s because I have already enacted a plan on doing my part, and this does not need to spill over into precious time and unsustainable expenditures of my energy.

Unfocused energy is a waste. It may be time to look at how you focus your energy into sustainable behaviors that do not fan the flames of additional anxiety. This is not at all to say there isn’t reason to feel anxious. This is to address a reasonable call to invest your energy and mood wisely, focusing it on what you can do to respond to your anxious feelings, rather than give in to fearful thoughts of the future to, which you cannot see an end.

At the end of the day, it’s important to decompress and bring our best selves back from the world of work to our spouses, partners, and family members. This may mean that you might be asking those same people to keep their talk about politics to a minimum. If they don’t already know that you know how they feel — even if they share your beliefs! — it may be time to tell them that you have shifted the need to talk about politics all the time, and that these feeling are understood and no longer under debate.

4. Write down your anxious thoughts regarding this election. Putting it into succinct words, descriptions, and reasons may be all you need to truly hear yourself and validate your own emotions. That action, in itself — the hearing of and acceptance of your own feelings as valid — may be the catharsis you are looking for.

If that ends up not being enough, you may wish to consider doing as some of my clients have already begun to do: talk to a professional. This new ‘thing’, Election Anxiety, is an opportunity to unpack fears and concerns that you may have been pondering well before the election cycle began. Concerns about our environment, women’s rights, the security of our nation, racism and bigotry, our criminal justice system, and personal past trauma didn’t “just” happen, yet this election may serve as the trigger point that has guided you to an understanding that it is now time to clean the closet and toss out the unnecessary baggage.

As we come into the last two months of the year, it may feel that it’s a bit late to get started in on examining the state of your own emotional health. Yet, why wait until you’re making New Year’s Resolutions on Dec. 31? Get a head start, and consider starting that examination now. If you need additional guidance, we’re here to help.

By Imei Hsu

Imei Hsu is a mental health counselor, active retired RN, AIP Coach and PN1-NC, writer, triathlete and arts promoter in the Seattle area and through online services. With 30+ years in healthcare (22+ years in mental health), Imei has a commitment to helping people discover insight into their health, relationships, and connecting. She is the owner of Seattle Direct Counseling and the blog, a presenter and speaker on a variety of psychological topics, and a positive force on the Internet. She launched her personal project, My Allergy Advocate, in 2018. Imei is a two-time Ironman Finisher (Mont-Tremblant 2016, Ironman Canada 2018); she also finished her first ultramarathon in 2017 and has gone on to race the 100K distance while preparing for 100 Mile trail races and a backyard ultra. You can find her running everywhere and eating all the thingz, watching movies, camping under the stars, and cooking real food.

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