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Election Fatigue in Full Swing: Who’s More Exhausted?

What you need to know about election stress disorder.

With five tiresome months to go before November, voters are already drained from the campaigns. Six in ten US adults (62%) report election fatigue, according to Pew Research. This is slightly higher than the study showed in the last two elections, with 59% of voters depleted by June and July of 2016 and 61% of voters exhausted by October 2020.

The survey also shows that Democrats and Republicans are almost evenly divided when it comes to election fatigue, with 66% of Dems and 58% of Republicans feeling the effects. The Pew study also indicated a correlation between how closely voters followed the news and their level of weariness. Perhaps surprisingly, voters who followed the news closely were less fatigued: only 40% of close followers compared to 77% of people not following closely.

Just How Anxious Are We?

At the end of the day, how anxious are people? Considerably more so than last year – and the anxiety is still rising, according to an April 2024 survey by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Almost half (43%) of the respondents said they felt more anxious than last year, up from 37% in 2023 and 32% in 2022. The biggest concerns were current events, reported by 70%, especially the economy (77%) and the election (73%).

This builds on the APA’s 2022 Stress in America poll findings. Of the people surveyed, 57% said the 2024 presidential election was already a significant stressor. Most respondents also said they were worried about the country’s future (76%) and the current political climate (66%).

Is election stress disorder real? The jury is still out – it is not yet an official diagnosis in the reference manual of US mental health professionals published by the APA. The concept of Election Stress Disorder was first introduced by Steven Stosny, Ph.D., a couples therapist practicing in Maryland, based on the symptoms he observed in his patients during the 2016 election. It’s worth noting, however, that Dr. Stosny specializes in resentment, anger, and emotional abuse, so there is the possibility of a hammer seeing a nail.

Other therapists, including Mayo Clinic psychiatrist Dr. Robert Bright, have gotten on board with the idea.

“People have trouble sleeping. There’s a lot of sleep disturbance going on right now – tossing, turning and worrying and not being able to get to sleep – or having bad dreams about the election.”

In a video for the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Bright attributed election fatigue to a lack of control over the outcome, and he encouraged voters to maintain positive connections for support. Dr. Bright urged voters who have graduated from feeling everyday stress to feeling depression, hopelessness, and despair to seek professional medical help.

Depression, along with anxiety, are actual groups of diagnosable disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DMSV-5-TR) that can be treated effectively.

Election PTSD: Buzzword or Bona Fide?

Like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an actual DMSV-5-TR-backed condition. Election PTSD is not – at least not yet. We usually associate PTSD with warfighters, first responders, and victims of assault and national disaster. Still, some research indicates that voters have experienced PTSD triggered by recent presidential elections.

A weighted survey published by the Cambridge University Press implied that 12.5% of Americans may report experiencing probable PTSD symptoms from the last election, with no statistically significant difference between Democrats and Republicans. The sample size was, however, small: just 618 respondents. Going further back, another small study indicated that the 2016 election caused 25% of psychology students at Arizona State University a clinically significant level of stress, equal in intensity to witnessing a mass shooting.

Election Fatigue Is Just Like Other Stress – Maybe

A university psychologist and a political scientist explored the issue of election stress in a Speaking of Psychology podcast. Dr. Brett Q. Ford, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, posited that election stress is a multifaceted stressor that may be unique from other types of tension because it included both identity-based and group-based forms of pressure.

Dr. Kevin Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln responded that these are still early days in researching the subject. “I think the short honest answer to that is we don’t know – the data that we have and we’ve looked at it is consistent with the argument that politics is a unique chronic stressor in the environment and that people who are not particularly stressed or anxious about other parts of the social environment still seem to get stressed and anxious about politics,” Dr. Smith said. “I hesitate to crawl out on a limb and declare that definitively, simply because at least as far as I’m aware, there hasn’t been a ton of study on that particular question.”

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