Healthy Living

Politics Driving You Crazy: Mental Health Conundrum Of ‘Post-Election Stress Disorder’

03/16/2017 10:50am ET | Updated March 22, 2017
Flickr user torbakhopper / Creative Commons

Caring too much about Trump’s misdeeds can heighten anxiety, despite creating a sense of purpose

By now, the clichés are rampant: Donald Trump is insane, narcissistic, irrational. He must be “on something.” The president can’t continue starting Twitter wars at this frenetic pace, say his enemies. If he doesn’t retreat, he’ll be impeached, or eventually just keel over.

But on the flip side, popular opposition to Trump also faces the mirror image of such crazy talk. Liberals feel like they’re at the edge of the abyss, unable or unwilling to see beyond their ideologically solipsistic world. They indulge escapist fantasies and emotional diversions. They are experiencing political fatigue, with many losing energy to fight seemingly existential battles.

The never-ending assault of “bad news” on Facebook and cable television contributes to deepening woes. So, the question remains unanswered: do you embrace the anxiety of unpredictable (yet potentially fulfilling) engagement with the new reality, or try to disconnect from the matrix entirely?

“There’s a background sense of dread about what’s going to happen next,” said Avril Swan, a family physician in San Francisco. She added that a “feeling of powerlessness” is prevalent among her patients. “People are having panic attacks, insomnia, and it’s triggering people who have been through other traumas.”

Perhaps conservative fans of the president have little sympathy for such suffering, but many experts are saying that liberals with a history of depression are prone to experience major side effects from Trump being in the White House. Those with pre-existing conditions may find that political anxiety compounds uncertainty around other life issues.

Among the many symptoms seen by stressed Americans are sleep disturbance, stomach problems, weight change, and headaches. Some people are absorbing the larger political burden in a somatic way, worried sick about racist rhetoric, the “Muslim ban,” immigration crackdown, increase in anti-Semitism, and an endless litany of policy prescriptions that could keep every progressive up at night.

Among the most disconcerting news from Washington: reports about Russian interference in our election, retracted wiretap accusations, and the impending loss of health care for tens of millions. One development after the other creates a sensation that the country could be headed in the wrong direction, and that citizens may not have any control over their future.

Since November 8, crisis and suicide prevention help lines have had significant upticks in callers. Also, the number of appointments on Talkspace, an online therapy portal, tripled after Election Day.

Real ‘disorder’ or mere ‘reaction’?

An article last month in Kaiser Health News elevated recognition of Post-Election Stress Disorder (PESD) as a real ailment. And doctors say politics increasingly plays into what’s bothering their patients.

Swan estimated that 85 percent of her patients bring up politics without her prompting them. “This is not normal,” the Bay Area doctor said. “We will not accept this. We will never be at ease with this. It runs counter to every cell in our bodies.”

However, there is significant pushback against the concept of PESD, with some critics saying that it trivializes PTSD, and others merely saying that the phenomenon is more of a “reaction” that is bound to dissipate but not a full-blown disorder. Nevertheless, some professionals argue that it’s completely “normal” to feel menaced by a massive threat to American democracy.

Most Americans now say the current political climate is indeed a significant source of stress. This includes many conservatives as well, with polarization often negatively impacting relationships at home and at work.

“Stress in America,” a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), showed in February that Democratic, higher-educated, and urban people tended to report more ill effects from the political climate. Of Democrats, 72 percent said that the outcome of the 2016 election was a significant source of stress. And even of Republicans, 59 percent said the future of our nation provoked stress.

In the sixth months prior to the study’s publication, Americans’ overall average stress level apparently went up more than at any other time during the survey’s 10 years in existence. In addition, four out of five Americans now say that stress is creating at least one health problem.

“Stress related to the election is real but that doesn’t make it a disorder,” said Vaile Wright, a psychologist at the APA. “People are stressed about March Madness but we don’t call that a disorder...We’ve just been calling it post-election stress and not assigning it a specific condition.”

“When it becomes chronic and untreated, it can lead to various physical and mental health disorders,” Wright said, adding that at therapy sessions “in red, blue, and purple states, people are talking about politics.”

To be sure, the APA study “encourages people to stay informed, but know their own limits when it comes to taking in information as one way to diminish the constant exposure to potentially distressing information and the resulting physical symptoms.”

What is the best remedy?

It’s clear that Trump’s presidency has been a boon to many ratings-reliant and subscriber-based media outlets, and progressive causes like the ACLU have seen a surge in donations. However, getting off social media and turning off the tube could be advisable -- or at least reducing consumption if it’s too taxing.

While the solution for some patients with more severe reactions may be upping the dosage of anti-anxiety medication, others find solace in solidifying their commitment to causes and channeling their passions productively towards positive change.

Rather than idling in a state of mental distress, practical application of painful sentiments and bonding with like-minded people can be most effective.

The consensus is that blue citizens should focus on the things they can do, accepting a semi-permanent sense of loss, spending time with loved ones, and seeking real help if necessary.

“Our advice is, regardless of what side of the political divide you’re on: take an active approach to whatever stress you’re feeling, whether it’s related to politics or something else in your life,” said Wright of the APA. “Prioritizing self-care, adequate sleep, eating healthy, engaging in activities, social support...and family is very important.”

Wright added that concerned Americans should “contribute meaningfully in some way or another, particularly at the local level.”

Many Americans want to heal as a country, yet emphatically acknowledge their right to be angry. One way to move forward is by appreciating that Trump isn’t forever; there will be another election soon enough, and our democracy might be battered, but will survive.

“People are resilient, and obviously, we still live in an amazing country,” said Swan. “Whereas the majority of people don’t agree with Trump or his policies, most of us are not under direct threat at this moment.”

“Right now, our profession must become politicized for the health of particular individuals, our community, our planet,” she contended. “It’s a public health measure.”

“People are still re-arranging their lives, trying to refocus on their values and change their actions so that they can sleep.”