How This Election Is Literally Making You Sick

And what experts say you can do about it.

trump-and-clinton
Photo by Bloomberg/Getty Images

Hearing one candidate threaten not to accept the results of the election and the other defend her use of a private email server, you might laughingly tell your friends the election is making you sick. Turns out, it’s no joke. Yup, the 2016 presidential contest may actually be hurting your physical and mental health, experts say.

A full 52 percent of Americans report that this election has been a "very" or "somewhat significant" source of stress, according to recent findings from the American Psychological Association. Here's what's going on: You’ve likely heard of the “fight or flight” instinct. Thousands of years ago, if humans faced a threat (think: a tiger approaches), they benefited from a heavy dose of cortisol, or the stress hormone, that kicked the fight-or-flight instinct into high gear, says Dr. Mason Turner, chief of psychiatry for Kaiser Permanente San Francisco. But the human body hasn’t evolved as quickly as our environmental stressors have—and while today’s problems are less short-term and physical (tigers) and more long-term and mental (this months-long election season), we have the same response to stress. With extended exposure, the stress hormone can contribute to weight problems and even memory limits, according to Turner.

In fact, researchers have found higher levels of cortisol in the saliva of voters heading to the polls. In one study published in 2010 in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, University of Michigan and Duke researchers collected spit samples of 183 participants at sites in Michigan and North Carolina before and after the announcement of the 2008 presidential results. Afterward, voters who chose losing candidate John McCain had increased cortisol levels whereas those who chose winning candidate Barack Obama did not.

On top of the cortisol spike, all the stress could even take a toll on your heart. First, the good news: It’s unlikely that the election results will trigger cardiac arrest in any given person. But Takotsubo syndrome is basically stress triggering a heart attack—from a funeral or a World Cup Soccer game (it’s happened!) or, perhaps, an election result. Normally it reverses, says Carl Lavie, M.D., medical director of cardiac rehabilitation and prevention at the John Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute. “But sometimes people die before [that happens].”

So now that you understand what's happening, what’s the best way to cope? Good, common sense healthy habits can help to shore up the needed resources to deal with the stress and keep your heart healthy. Sorry, but that means you shouldn’t drown your post-debate sorrows with alcohol or French fries. And instead of checking FiveThirtyEight one. more. time. before bed, try to clock at least seven hours of sleep. Exercise is important, too—Turner, for instance, took a walk before he watched the final debate so he felt calm going into it. “The one thing that people can do is really make an extra effort to not skip their exercise. You probably need it more during times of heavy stress,” Lavie says.

In addition to these basics, we asked the experts to run through a few scenarios that can take a toll on our sanity and health—and their best advice for how to deal.

What’s Making You Sick: Facebook and Twitter Feel Like a War Zone

“[Social media] models a lot of bad behavior,” says Dr. Keith Humphreys, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, ”including things like ridiculing everyone who disagrees with you and using harsh language.” The barrage can feel overwhelming. And the urgency to comment can mean there’s no time to gain perspective before speaking, says Dr. John Burton, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, who sees patients in Manhattan. “There’s no opportunity to have some space to kind of take it in and make of it what you will and then come out and be able to have a dialogue.”

What to Do: In the ideal world, you’d take a social media holiday until November 9. But if that’s not realistic (hello, you want those Jane the Virgin recaps), then try adjusting your newsfeed settings so you’re not getting all politics all the time. Find more advice for dealing with awkward social media interactions here.

What’s Making You Sick: The 24-Hour News Cycle

Constant TV and online updates can heighten emotions without any relief. And that means people don’t have the opportunity to step back for some much-needed perspective, Burton says—or the chance to say, “This is bad, but it won’t stay this way forever.”

What to Do: First a ground rule: Try to go device-free an hour before you go to sleep (or at least election-news-free), Humphreys says. Instead, he recommends getting engaged in the real world can do more to soothe anxiety than mindless hours parked in front of a screen. “If you really feel frightened about a candidate or an issue in your state, the best thing you can do is something positive,” says Humphreys. “Go door to door. Become a volunteer to help register to vote.” Meditation is OK, too, but it’s not magic. “You can do self-care relaxation and yoga, but for democracy to work, we have to be engaged politically.” That goes after the election, too. “If you’re upset with the result, get engaged,” says Humphreys.

What’s Making You Sick: The Constant Name Calling

At speeches and in the debates, candidates called each other “puppets” and worse. Others are modeling this talk at home, even causing family feuds. People may say, “’My dad’s for Trump, and my mom’s for Hillary and they’re fighting,’” says Humphreys. The emotional issues at play in this campaign—including sexual assault allegations—can also feel more stressful than if the candidates were just talking about, say, tax plans, says Turner.

What to Do: Humphreys suggests demonstrating good listening behavior. ‘You can tell me three things you like about Donald Trump, and when you’re done, I’m going to tell you three things I like about Hillary Clinton,’” he says. “Let’s not relate to each other like people do on Twitter. We will not mock, we will not question anyone’s patriotism. It’s OK to disagree, but we’re going to do it respectfully.”

What’s Making You Sick: Wildly Swinging Poll Results

It’s hard for people to “tolerate uncertainty,” says Burton. And yes, anxiety can even increase blood pressure. Among modifiable predictors of heart disease, stress ranks No. 3 after smoking and high cholesterol, says David Zich, M.D., who practices internal medicine and emergency medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

What to Do: For starters, recognize what’s happening. Then, “try to limit the amount of ‘what if’ questions,” says Zich. “What if this person gets elected, then this might happen and this might happen and that might happen. What that’s called in the psychiatry world is ‘catastrophizing.’” Two examples: “‘If Donald Trump gets elected, we will be in World War III,’” he says. “Or, ‘We’re going to become a socialist country if Clinton gets elected.’” Try distracting yourself by thinking about your kids, your friends, your hobbies. And if the negative thought appears, “say stop,” says Zich. Casting your ballot can actually help too. “Even if you’re voting for the losing candidate, you feel as if you’re doing something,” says Turner. “I always feel really great and empowered about my vote, even if my vote doesn’t win.”

What’s Making You Sick: Everyone’s Talking About Moving to Canada

“When we’re anticipating events, we tend to think they’re going to completely permeate our lives, which is very stressful,” says Linda Levine, a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California at Irvine who has studied voters’ responses to past presidential elections. She and her colleagues found that the 183 undergraduates they recruited in California, Texas and Washington, D.C., in 2008 and the 202 undergraduates they recruited in California in 2012 to fill out online surveys slightly underestimated the peak intensity of their feelings about the election but greatly overestimated their influence on their overall mood a month later.

What to Do About It: Beware that you may not want to actually make dramatic plans to move up North. As Levine’s research shows, bad election memories fade over time. So instead of real-estate shopping, take healthy, positive actions that make you feel powerful, not powerless. “Volunteer to go door to door if there’s a cause that really concerns you, like climate change or your Second Amendment rights, or whatever it might be,” says Levine. “Rather than kind of just watching the TV and stewing and feeling like you have no control, use your emotions to motivate constructive behavior.”