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Do you have 'election stress disorder'? Learn to cope with the anxiety produced by today's politics

The midterm elections have created an emotionally charged situation for people on both sides of the political aisle. All of that worry and stress can erode mental health and wellbeing. In this NewsMD "Health Fusion" column, Viv Williams shares tips from a University of Minnesota expert about managing election stress.

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Election stress can escalate before, during and after election day.
Gary Hathaway - stock.adobe.com
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ROCHESTER — As a health reporter, I don't cover a lot of politics. But I feel as if I have to jump in because the emotional intensity of the midterm elections and party politics leading up to it have put the mental health and well being of many people at risk. People and politicians are scared, passionate and mad at each other. Some of the mudslinging that's going on would almost be entertaining if the stakes weren't so high.

Before I get into the crux of this column — the real health problems that can develop from being stressed out, anxious and depressed about the political scene and what you can do about them — I want to mention what I learned about the history of mudslinging from an online article . I find it fascinating and, in a way, hopeful. At least we haven't gone quite as far as they did during the 1892 presidential election. But even back then, they realized how dangerous stress can be to your health. Below is an excerpt from the article at study.com.

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"(The) 1828 U.S. presidential election saw incumbent President John Quincy Adams' supporters calling Andrew Jackson's mother a prostitute, his wife a whore and Jackson a murderer and a cannibal. Jackson, whose wife died of a heart attack suspected to have been caused by the stress of the mudslinging accusations, became president."

A cannibal? Really? Wow. That's pretty outrageous and false. (I hope!) But the health issues that can result from rumor-induced stress and other types of emotional stress are real. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website notes that stress can cause stomach issues, sleep problems, rashes and headaches, and it can worsen existing physical and mental conditions including alcohol and drug abuse.

Health and medical experts have given the stress and anxiety associated with recent elections a name — election stress disorder. It's not a clinical diagnosis or official medical term, but the idea makes sense because a lot of people are emotionally overwhelmed.

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Dr. Mustafa al'Absi is a professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School with expertise in stress and addictive behaviors.

"There's something that's called anticipation stress, which is a very bad thing," says al'Absi. "Sometimes it's worse than the event itself. For example, when you're going to have a test, you worry about the test, you have problems sleeping, you don't eat well and you're tense. But once the test is in front of you, half of that stress is gone even before you read the questions."

Al'Absi says that the same thing happens before an election. People get so worried about election results and being dissatisfied with those results that they become overwhelmed with stress and anxiety. He says that if you become anxious to the point where it disrupts your life and relationships, consider seeking professional help from a health care provider. And he recommends practicing coping strategies that can help to break the cycle of stress.

"The best thing to do is to distract yourself, and it can be done in many ways, said al'Absi. "It's a matter of breaking the cycle between triggers and what comes after, which is the response. Small things can go a long way in breaking the cycle and reducing stress and anxiety."

Strategies include:

  • Deep breathing
  • Positive social interactions
  • Taking a walk
  • Turning off the flow of news information on social media and other outlets.

"And if you don't get your results, remember that there will be a next time," al'Absi said. "Think about what's important in your life and what's important to your community as a whole. Think about the big picture. The big picture is bigger than any of the results of any single election cycle."
He also says that casting a ballot may help you feel as if you're part of that bigger picture.

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Follow the  Health Fusion podcast on  Apple,   Spotify and  Google podcasts. For comments or other podcast episode ideas, email Viv Williams at  vwilliams@newsmd.com. Or on Twitter/Instagram/FB @vivwilliamstv.

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Related Topics: HEALTH FUSIONNEWSMD
Opinion by Viv Williams
Viv Williams hosts the NewsMD podcast and column, "Health Fusion." She is an Emmy (and other) award-winning health and medical reporter whose stories have run on TV, digital and newspaper outlets nationwide. Viv is passionate about boosting people's health and happiness by helping them access credible, reliable and research-based health information from top experts. She regularly interviews experts and patients from leading medical institutions, such as Mayo Clinic.
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