In search of a smile: Why election stress has given many a sense of doom and gloom

More than 3.5 million New Jerseyans already have voted in the general election — a first-of-its-kind situation caused by COVID-19.

And, while it seemingly should mean there will be less stress, as simply finding time to get to the polls — and making a final selection among candidates — has been eliminated, experts think today’s election has the potential to be more stressful than ever.

There’s COVID-19 — and the sense the country is more divided than ever.

But, more than that, our traditional ways of reducing stress are not as readily available.

Petros Levounis. (Twitter/Rutgers New Jersey Medical School)

So said Petros Levounis, a professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and chief of service at University Hospital. He said the COVID-19 pandemic has robbed people of some of the best strategies to help us cope with stress and anxiety.

Here’s why:

  • We’re isolated: It is now much harder to get together and speculate, celebrate or commiserate about the election with friends;
  • We’re home-bound: We’re unable to go to the movie, theater, clubs, parties or even out to eat;
  • We’re lonely: Dating, relationships and sex, which also help, have dwindled among many people.

Then there’s this: “Perhaps one of the pandemic’s most sinister effects has been the inability to see each other’s faces the way we used to during a heated election week,” Levounis said.

It’s amazing how much a smile can be mean, he said.

“When we need a sense of community the most, precisely at the time when we’d like to be reminded of our humanity and collective struggles, hopes and fears, we’re unable to even smile at one another at this time,” he said.

“We walk the same streets, but cannot offer the reassuring facial expressions that let our fellow citizens know that we are all in it together, no matter whom we support for president.”

Levounis offered tips to handle the day and the week.

  • Preserve your routines: “Stick to your exercise schedule, your weekend romance, daily crossword puzzle or other pleasurable activities that give structure to your life,” he said.
  • Take charge of what you can control: “Like supporting your candidate by going out to vote,” he said. “You can advocate, donate or volunteer. Then, let the proverbial chips fall where they may and know you did the best you could.”
  • Hang out with friends: “Connect safely with others, at all costs, to feel a sense of community,” he said. “Try not to be so quick to write off virtual happy hours, virtual get-togethers or virtual election-night parties. Doing something is certainly better than doing nothing.”

Levounis said all elections provoke anxiety. This one just may be greater. And, unfortunately, it’s almost certain to last longer.

Because of the new voting methods and the predicted challenge of them many of the results will not be known until long after the election.