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Worried About the Election? You’re Not Alone

Are you experiencing constant anxiety about the upcoming election? Do you feel helpless to hasten its approach? Does fear grip you because you can’t control the outcome?

Join the club.  

Situations like these are tremendous stressors that eat away at our psychological resources over time, affecting many people, and especially those suffering from an anxiety disorder like OCD, said Fletcher Wortmann, author of Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. 

Even if you don’t suffer from OCD, you probably need to manage frustration, futility, disruptive thoughts, maladaptive coping strategies—and anxiety, in general—as Tuesday, November 3, 2020, approaches.

People report that worry helps them to anticipate and prepare for threat. Those prone to worry tend to feel uncertain they can control events and cannot tolerate this uncertainty.

What remains to be said about the 2020 elections, once political issues and platforms are excluded from the conversation? First of all, it’s important to distinguish between anxiety and worry, Wortmann said. Anxiety is a feeling, while worry is a type of thinking often triggered by feelings of anxiety: a sustained cognitive effort to resolve whatever problem is making you anxious.

People report that worry helps them to anticipate and prepare for threat. Those prone to worry tend to feel uncertain they can control events and cannot tolerate this uncertainty. Worry helps them feel that they have anticipated possible threats and taken action against them.

An event like a national election is precisely the kind of imminent, inevitable, and yet impossible-to-grapple-with threat that completely baffles our normal problem-solving strategies and can lead us instead into obsessive worry.

If you’re looking for help with anxiety, sometimes you may need to bounce ideas off of a professional counselor.

“Worry makes sense when it helps you work out the best solution to a problem so you can set about implementing it,” said Paul Ekman, in Emotions Revealed. “But worry can become unhealthy when the cause of the anxiety is a problem or threat you cannot meaningfully influence in the moment. How we experience fear depends on whether the threat is immediate or impending.”

An event like a national election is precisely the kind of imminent, inevitable, and yet impossible-to-grapple-with threat that completely baffles our normal problem-solving strategies and can lead us instead into obsessive worry, Wortmann said.

Will we survive the election? Of course, we will. But it’s impossible to know for sure just what survival will look like.

“The event is in the near future, but nothing you say or do will hasten or postpone it,” he said. “It has huge implications for your personal wellbeing and happiness, yet you can’t attack the problem head-on to personally change the outcome. And although any citizen in a democracy can contribute to meaningful political change, there aren’t any immediate, obvious cause-and-effect consequences to demonstrate the efficacy of your actions.” 

No matter what you say or do, you can never be definitively sure that your efforts are improving the situation. As Ekman put it, “There is nothing to do but wait to see if one survives.” 

Will we survive the election? Of course, we will. But it’s impossible to know for sure just what survival will look like.

Impossible problems have dire consequences for our mental health.  In Freedom from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Jonathan Grayson explained how seeking certainty about an uncertain outcome feeds into OCD.

“When we pursue an impossible wish, it can lead to our downfall,” Grayson said. “Almost all neutralizing rituals include an attempt to achieve the impossible—at the very least, in the pursuit of an absolute certainty or perfection that can withstand all questioning . . . When a definition of recovery requires achieving the impossible, the hopeless depression experienced by so many of you will be inevitable.” 

Does toxicity apply to our choice for president? It's perfectly normal to feel like an impending event such as a presidential election is casting a shadow over your life, especially if there’s nothing you can really do to change or prevent it.

This “hopeless depression” is a consequence of experiencing futility, said Gershen Kaufman, author of The Psychology of Shame. He writes that someone is rendered powerless in any significant area of life, one becomes susceptible to depression, hopelessness, and, eventually, despair. If prolonged, powerlessness threatens one’s ability to sustain courage and hope. The combination of helplessness and hopelessness is psychologically toxic for the self.

Does toxicity apply to our choice for president? It’s perfectly normal to feel like an impending event such as a presidential election is casting a shadow over your life, especially if there’s nothing you can really do to change or prevent it. 

“Worry is the natural product of a restless, unsettled mind with nothing productive to expend its nervous energy on,” said Wortmann. “Once you realize this, it’s easy to see how waiting for the November elections can cause excessive worry without a productive outlet.”

Note: Look for tip on how to manage such worries in an upcoming blog article—before the election.

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If you’re looking for help with anxiety, sometimes you may need to bounce ideas off of a professional counselor.

References

Paul Ekman. Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces

and Feelings to Improve Communication

and Emotional Life. 2nd edition. Holt

Paperbacks, New York, NY, 2007. Pg. 155-6.

 

Jonathan Grayson. Freedom from Obsessive-

Compulsive Disorder (Updated Edition). Penguin Random House, New York, NY, 2014. Pg. 40.

 

Gershen Kaufman, The Psychology of Shame:

Theory and Treatment of Shame-Based

Syndromes. Springer Publishing Co., New

York, NY, 1989. Pg. 84.

 

Fletcher Wortmann. “Suffering from Election

Anxiety: Wrestling with anxiety as we count

down to the election.” Sept. 4, 2020.

Psychology Today. Retrieved from

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/triggered/202009/suffering-election-anxiety

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