If the recent presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have got your blood boiling, you’re not alone.
Over the last few weeks there have been the usual personal attacks, and the not-so-usual threats to throw an opponent in jail. And while U.S. politics has always been known for its fair share of mudslinging, many health experts are saying this presidential election is remarkably different.
And, not surprisingly, it’s got a lot of us seriously stressed out.
More than half of Americans feel the presidential election has been a source of “significant stress,” according to a report released last week by the American Psychological Association.
An old Facebook friend of mine just posted a status update saying she was admitted to the hospital today for election-related stress.
Michael Tracey (@mtracey) October 19, 2016
“Debates, by definition, are intended to involve some conflict,” Lynn Bufka, who worked on the APA report and is the associate executive director of practice research and policy at APA, told Mashable. “However, I think the challenge with these past debates is the tenor of the debate has become even more hostile or acrimonious.”
Watching the two candidates duke it out can actually bring up serious feelings of agitation and emotional distress for some people, according to Bufka.
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mary alice carter (@MACarter73) October 10, 2016
this election is making my face break out my stress triggered acne issues will be solved on tuesday nov 8 2016
anjana (@anjanaaaaaa) October 10, 2016
She said that the members of targeted groups, such as women and immigrants, can feel disrespected. Meanwhile, the personal behaviors of some candidates can irk people watching at home, who may think “This is not how a president should behave,” she said.
It’s a not-so-surprising byproduct of an election cycle that feels different, and really, emotionally worse than past years.
“There’s a general increase in anxiety or stress,” Joseph Ganz, a Manhattan-based psychologist, told Mashable. “It’s more like a dread.”
Among his patients, Ganz said, there’s a variety of fears. Some people feel that political instability resulting from a particular candidate’s election could mean collapsing markets, and thus, a personal threat to their finances. For a few others, there’s even more grave feelings at bay.
Ganz said some of his patients are concerned that if a certain candidate is elected, it could lead to something much more sinister. “People are worried that, in fact, something like a war or nuclear war is much more possible,” he said.
Interestingly, not all the feelings of distress are so literal or specific. Ganz described more “diffused” feelings of anxiety that have come up. Within the election, an exposure of blunt extremist views, and the obvious layers of prejudice within them, has made many uncomfortable.
“It taps into people’s collective guilt about race,” Ganz said.
Of course, the impacts on different groups vary widely, with Muslim Americans and Latin Americans inevitably having a different personal emotional response to the rhetoric of specifically Republican candidate Donald Trump.
Trump has come under fire for his vulgar comments about women and several women have come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct. The serious accusations could cost him the election, with recent polls showing Clinton has a double-digit lead among women voters in multiple states.
Now, that divide has creeped into the therapy sessions of American couples.
During the first presidential debate, Trump interrupted Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton 50 times. She interrupted him 17 times. That disparity did not go unnoticed by many American women watching at home.
It drove some wives to tell their husbands about their own frustrating feelings with the unfortunate phenomenon of “mansplaining,” or patronizing speech towards women, according to Charleston psychologist Matthew Leary, who works with couples.
Stirred by the sight of Trump’s behavior toward Clinton, women are telling their husbands about what it feels like “to be talked over or interrupted over and over again,” Leary told Mashable.
Feelings of distress have not only seeped into the minds of Americans, but also into their relationships. Leary said he advises husbands to “have a little empathy” and try seeing things from another perspective.
“Get curious about that,” he told husbands. “Get curious about what it feels like to be a woman in American society.”
Beyond the individual feelings of certain groups, from women to people of color, a pervading sense of fear seems to mark what’s being felt by most during this election and its painful series of debates.
“I think the biggest thing I see is a lot of fear, a lot of… ‘Are we going in the right direction?'” Leary told Mashable. “No matter what your political beliefs … there’s a lot of fear of what the other candidate might do if they’re in office.”
A majority of both Democrats and Republicans are among those who feel “significant stress” from the presidential election, according to APA’s survey. Fifty-nine percent of Republicans said they’re stressed out, while it was 55 percent for Democrats.
Debates are fertile grounds for these sorts of feelings. To make sure you can take the heat, Bufka said it’s smart to be prepared when you are watching events such as the debates.
“There’s a power button…you don’t have to watch it.”
“If you anticipate it’s going to get you agitated,” she said. “Have a plan for how you might handle that. Know what helps you.”
This could be going for a walk, doing a crossword puzzle, or even shutting out social media, she said. Four out of 10 Americans said “political and cultural discussions on social media” stress them out, according to the APA survey.
You might even want to rule out alcohol, if drinking tends to make you “more prone to expressing politically agitated thoughts,” Bufka added.
And better yet, you could just tune out completely. “If you’re really feeling agitated about the debate,” Bufka said. “There’s a power button…you don’t have to watch it.”