Although every presidential election increases anxiety and anger in the American electorate, this election has been one of the most anxiety-provoking ones in the recent history of the United States. A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association in August 2016 found that 1 out of 10 Americans report feeling tense and stressed out due to the controversy around the 2016 presidential campaign, to the point where it has negatively impacted their productivity at work. Members of the younger generation are more likely to experience negative psychological aftereffects of political discussion, or election anxiety, than older people.
In my counseling practice in Los Angeles, many of my clients have told me that watching the recent presidential debates triggered them, bringing up memories associated with sexual assault, bullying, and discrimination. One of my clients, who has been in recovery from bulimia for the last 5 months, relapsed after watching the second debate. She told me that she restarted purging a few days after the election, because she was not able to stomach the “gut-wrenching anxiety” triggered by the debate. A highly accomplished immigrant client told me that she can’t stop worrying about the possible negative outcomes of this election. She told me that she feels stuck in an endless cycle of reading political news followed by reading hostile exchanges on social media among her friends and getting more worried, thinking about what will happen to her family if Trump wins the election. She tells me she feels trapped in a tug of war between Hillary and Trump supporters. Although this election is stirring so much negative emotion in American, it can also be a tool for reaching people and helping them create meaningful lives. Thanks to my background in positive psychology, when I see pain and suffering, I always look for opportunities to find meaning and purpose. One of the modalities I often use to help my patients create a life worth living is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The focus of ACT interventions is not to eliminate suffering but to help people to create rich and meaningful lives based on the lessons learned from suffering. Although eliminating anxiety and suffering is attractive to many people, this is what many therapists consider a “dead person’s goal.” This term was coined by Lindsley in 1968, and it refers to a goal that a corpse would be able to accomplish more successfully than a living human being. A dead person does not struggle with moral failings, cravings for drugs, relational issues, or loss and grief. As living human beings, our lives have more potential than a corpse and we are cheating ourselves if we settle for eliminating unwanted emotional experiences. Instead, we need to focus on creating a life for ourselves based on joy and delight.
Election Anxiety and Your Values
According to ACT, a key element in creating a meaningful life is to clarify what is important for you, identifying your priorities and values. Values are different than goals, since they are the direction for our lives that we keep moving toward, whereas goals are destinations, we can cross them off our lists when we reach them. Thinking back about the most recent presidential debates:
- What were some of the arguments of the opposing candidate that provoked your anxiety?
- What are some of the principles of your candidate that you strongly identified with and cared about?
- From the issues presented during the debates, which was truly important to you personally? Try not to consider what is expected from you in society or by family members.
Read through the statements you have written and for each statement write a value that would describe it. The image below provides a list of some common values that people often identify with. If you are still struggling with identifying your values and prioritizing what is important to you, watch the video below and complete the instructions provided in it:
Values and Committed Action
Voting based on your values is a basic and essential way that you can take action based on your values; however, the key for obtaining long-term mental health is to take action according to your chosen values in all aspects of your life. Take a sheet of paper and write down various aspects of your life, such employment, relationships, community, and parenting. To incorporate this principle in your life, identify one domain of your life that you would like to change. Translate your values into actionable steps that you can take on daily basis to help create a life based on your guided values.
Dr. Nazanin Moali is a licensed clinical psychologist and eating-disorder specialist practicing in Torrance, California. Dr. Moali offers therapy and counseling for anxiety, stress management, and addiction at her office in the South Bay area in Los Angeles or online. She lives in Rancho Palos Verdes with her family.