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Election anxiety is a real thing. Here's how to cope

Arizona is set to be one of the most contested this election year — a true battleground rife with independent voters and central to many of the most contentious issues at hand.

But, while many in the world of politics are ramping up for a good fight, the election only causes anxiety for many others. In fact, election anxiety is a real thing today. New research has shown it ramps up heading up to election day — and can cause everything from insomnia to panic attacks. 

The Show spoke more about it — and how we can all cope — with Dr. Ayman Fanous, chair of the Psychiatry Department at University of Arizona's College of Medicine — Phoenix.

Interview highlights

FANOUS: It's been noticed not just anecdotally but also in research that anxiety levels increase in the run up to an election and they usually spike around the election day itself and they decline a little bit afterwards. You know, some people have used the terminology for this election anxiety disorder. Of course, that's not really a DSM disorder. But it certainly has, has been shown in research to actually be a real thing.

So, for example, studies have shown that prescription medication use for anti-anxiety medications, such as, you know, SSRIs, Prozac and things like that, do increase in the run up to the election and decline thereafter. As well as the utilization of psychotherapeutic services.

But also, you know, even biological studies, such as studying the levels of salivary cortisol — and cortisol, of course, is the stress hormone as well as testosterone. As a matter of fact, levels of those hormones are increased in the run up to an election. And again, after the election itself, they're shown to decline somewhat.

That's so interesting. What's the history of this research?

FANOUS: But it's been written about really, in the last I would say 10 years or so. And the vast majority of literature, you know, has actually been published, you know, between like say 2015 and the current time. And the studies have actually been done around the 2016 and the 2020 elections.

So these are the two elections that have been really been studied most effectively and, and most deeply. Now, it's interesting, there's been more anxiety surrounding the 2020 election than the 2016 election, where a substantially larger number of people have reported that the election has caused them a great deal of stress. So that was kind of an interesting finding of these studies.

Tell me what this looks like, physically in a person. What are the symptoms of this kind of anxiety?

FANOUS: Sure. Well, of course, the hallmark of anxiety itself is excessive, worry, uncontrollable worry. You know, most of us ... we get worried about things here and there, but we're able to sort of like, distract ourselves or sort of do some self talk to sort of change our way of thinking about something. But with, with anxiety at this level, it's very hard to actually talk yourself down. It sort of takes a life of its own.

And it's accompanied by certain physical signs and symptoms as we would call them, including restlessness, where an individual would be fidgety, having a hard time sitting still. They might get irritable, you know, snap at people for things that ordinarily would not anger them. There might be muscle tension, especially in the back neck area. And of course, that can be accompanied by headaches.

You certainly have sleep disturbances, usually insomnia. And you can get things like, you know, GI upset ... including things like bad dreams as well. Bad dreams about the election as a matter of fact, can be, can be part of this.

This seems to have increased with the 2020 election, which makes a lot of sense given the sort of shift in the country at that moment. But it's interesting, especially coming from a journalist's perspective because I can imagine that this kind of anxiety must be sort of fed by the news cycle.

FANOUS: Yeah, absolutely. It is fed by the news cycle. And one of the things that we recommend to people is that they limit their news intake. But there are a number of causes for it. I mean, basically what you're seeing is the worry that the candidate who will win the election will be basically reversing certain policies that an individual finds beneficial. Or you might actually see it as a repudiation of your own values. You know, the the winning candidate being someone that you don't necessarily agree with. It gives you a sense that, you know, your values are not necessarily highly valued, you know, in the country. So there's a number of things and that, you know, leads to people feeling less self-esteem, decreased sense of cohesion in society, so on and so forth.

Tell us about treatment of this. It sounds like voting itself or like getting involved might help.

FANOUS: Yeah, absolutely. You know, one of the things about anxiety is fear of the unknown and a sense of helplessness that you can't change a certain outcome. That helplessness actually increases the sense of anxiety and and and lost control. So anything that you can do to essentially take control over, at least your own situation, can certainly ameliorate the situation. So for example, voting is really the No. 1 thing that you can do. You know, everybody's voice is equally loud. And by voting, you have shown that, you know, you have some efficacy and that you can make a difference.

And, you know, there's a number of other things that you can do, certainly giving other people of your time and effort and helping others, even outside of the political arena. Whether it's, you know, volunteering to help the homeless or something like that, could be very helpful. Just doing random acts of kindness, you know, taking something off someone's plate, helping them with something that they find difficult. Something totally informal like that can actually be very beneficial.

And number of other things that can be done. As I said earlier, limiting news exposure is definitely one of them because that just tends to drive the cycle of anxiety. It's really important to maintain interpersonal connectedness during these periods of time, to have someone that you can talk to even watch the debates with things like that. Someone that you can sort of bounce ideas off without the conversation turning toxic or name calling or, you know, anger outbursts and things like that. You really want to have someone that you can trust. Focusing on physical health is really important. And certainly exercise is very important and, and, you know, exercise doesn't have to be working out, like, classically, it could just really be — even a 10 or 15 minute walk could be very beneficial.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.