Elections 2019: Is Election Related Stress a Real Phenomenon?

On counting day, many Indians are stressed over the results, but is there such a thing as election stress?

5 min read

The 2019 elections are finally coming to close with a thumping win for the ruling party and there is some sense of election ‘anxiety’, specially among those who supported the parties that lost the mandate.

From constant information bytes to family Whatsapp groups – these elections have seeped into our everyday lives.

On counting day especially, the stress levels are off the charts with some people worried about how the outcome will impact their lives.

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We spoke to a few mental health professionals to see if the nervousness was temporary, and to find out what you can do to get through the anxiousness you may be feeling.

Is This a Real Phenomena? What is ‘Election Anxiety’?

First, the phrase ‘election anxiety’ is problematic. Anxiety as a medical condition is the fear of the irrational and these current election related fears are very much real and rational.

In 1997, a study of the panchayat elections in Rajasthan threw up an interesting phenomena on elections and stress – 54 males involved in the organising of the elections reported psychiatric issues post the event, and sought professional help. They study concluded that elections are indeed a “stressful life event.”

In 2016, US citizens reported feeling extreme trauma and even PTSD when Donald Trump was elected President. They termed the palpable nervousness as Post Election Stress Disorder (PESD).

Election related anxiety is not a disorder, it is a real fear. It is not just an individual fear, it is a systemic issue so we cannot blame the individual for feeling nervous.
SnehaJanaki, Counselling Psychologist

She adds that this sort of nervousness was seen around other major policy/legal changes as well, saying that “when the judgement decriminalizing Section 377 was overturned, there were cases of people in the queer community coming in with related fears. But again, the anxiety around this made sense.”

Ayushi Khemka, activist and co-founder of Mental Health Talks, told us that it is important to make the distinction between stress or nervousness and anxiety clear, otherwise “mental illness becomes a fad or a quirk” and is not diagnosed seriously.

Paras Sharma a counselor from The Alternative Story, a platform that focuses on accessible mental healthcare, added, “I would not call it 'Election Anxiety' as that would give it the form of a diagnosis. Election results can be a stressful and triggering time given the vitiated language used by people on social media and in mainstream media some times.”

So while there is no medical disorder specifically linking elections and heightened anxiety, there are many indicators that the collective stress is real.

Harsher stances against the ‘other’ – the Muslim, the Dalit, the Liberal and the Woman, to name a few – have become normalised and have leaked into campaign narratives and policy and these all have a direct and real impact on our lives.

“Because of how the last five years have been, the fear and the anxiety are on a different kind of rise. And also because of the anticipation of what five more years would do to the already worsened situation,” adds Adishi Gupta, co-founder of Mental Health Talks.

'Mental Health Does Not Exist in a Vacuum’

Dr Shreya Varma, a counsellor from Delhi featured on iCall’s list of queer-inclusive counsellors, told us that while she has not seen any categorical cases, this election season is affecting us in overarching ways we cannot perceive clearly in the everyday.

Besides with a higher awareness of mental health, we may be able to name the issues we are facing, “but people may not be aware of the subconscious link to election season,” Varma added.

Since a person’s mental health is affected by their social identity, a leader’s tolerance or intolerance towards a particular identity, especially when it is a marginalised one, directly affects their health – emotional, mental and physical.
Adishi Gupta, Mental Health Activist
On counting day, many Indians are stressed over the results, but is there such a thing as election stress?
Your social identity and resultant discrimination can affect your mental health

Gupta adds, “Mental health does not exist in vacuum. Because of how much the sociopolitical conditions affect and influence our lives, elections are a direct trigger.”

There has been a visible manifestation of stress among the general public, and this trend isn't new. Major economic or policy changes, like demonestisation, have lead to a documented rise in mental health issues.

In a report by the DailyO, a senior psychiatrist who wished to stay anonymous said, “I have had patients, who have had no history of stress or anxiety disorders, yet are worried if they would be persecuted by virtue of their religion. The constant uneasiness and uncertainty in the life of a common householder develops into stress and subsequently into anxiety, leading to physiological complications.”

‘Whatsapp Groups Are Making Me Hate My Family!’

Khemka tells us that she has spoken to a therapist about the extreme stress her family whatsapp groups were causing her, “family issues always existed, but now interpersonal relations are getting affected because the issues are more systemic, and I feel powerless.”

Family politics have have transcended into a new political-ideological realm. “It is difficult to co-exist (let alone, feel ‘related’) with people who don’t shy away from being bigoted. And yes, it has and continues to be talked about in my therapy sessions,” adds Gupta.

On counting day, many Indians are stressed over the results, but is there such a thing as election stress?

'What is the Purpose of My Existence?’ Elections Can Make us Existential

Khemka adds that often issues with the election process, where one feels hopeless to a majority or even faces problems like missing names from the voter ID list can trigger an existential crisis.

“Mental Health deals with you and your existence, and finding your name missing from a voting list can make you question your worth.”

When one finds they cannot vote and so can’t even attempt to make a difference, people with existing mental health conditions are usually worse hit.

Additionally, targeted online trolling and harassment over political affiliations can affect stress levels, “especially since it is done in a larger, organised fashion,” adds Khemka.

How Do We Heal?

It’s always a good idea to go offline when the stress feels too overwhelming and try a few grounding exercises to find your calm.

Sharma conducted a helpful twitter thread with The Blue Dawn, a facilitator of Mental Health Care services to bahujans, about dealing with this specific type of collective stress here.

Find a space to talk about your worries and process your feelings, be in therapy (here is ICall’s list of affordable therapists) or otherwise.

It’s important to remember that the stress we feel makes sense and is real, adds SnehaJanaki – but to help us deal with it we can seek solidarity and solace through community healing with friends and chosen family.

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