Election Stress Disorder
Why the Ambassadors must rule over the Primitives
Posted Oct 22, 2016
As I watched the third presidential debate, I realized just how anxious and depressed I had become over the last few months of this election cycle. The first debate was bad enough. My wife, Tracey, and I sat in a hotel lounge in Toronto, Canada, after we had finished running a training for therapists, and watched it on TV. Most of the people around us were Canadian. They laughed incredulously at Donald Trump. I was feeling very dispirited by the negative tone of the debate. Not to mention embarrassed in front of this international audience.
Tracey and I were in another city when we watched the second debate. This time I was frantically trying to keep up with my Twitter feed as I watched the cringe-worthy event. I felt even worse than I did during the first debate.
Now, having watched all three debates, I feel kind of like I just binge-watched all eight seasons of the TV drama 24. When I think about the election, there is a constant sensation of dread in my body. The Republican primary debates this spring were intense. But I've never witnessed anything quite like these last three debates. Brutal. Like the worst reality TV show ever. Only this is reality.
The other day, I came upon an article about what the American Psychological Association has termed election stress disorder. Bingo! I’ve been suffering from election stress disorder. No wonder I felt more like reaching for ibuprofen or even Xanax, rather than munching on popcorn, as I watched the TV. Not only that, but I realized how many of my patients are also suffering from this disorder. And we aren’t alone. Michelle Obama recently said the Access Hollywood video of Donald Trump had “shaken me to my core in a way I could not have predicted.”
The APA’s recommendation for relief from election stress disorder is to get the information you need, and then turn off the media. Take a break, go for a walk, or maybe watch reruns on television. Limit your conversations about politics. Avoid heated arguments. In other words, chill. And of course get out there and vote. The worst thing you can do is fall into a malaise, indulge in hopelessness and passivity, and completely disengage from the voting process.
The APA’s ideas are good. I also think it helps to look at this from a psychobiological perspective. In other words, simply put, what is happening in our brains during (and after) the debates?
I like to think of the parts of our brain (e.g., amygdala, hypothalamus, dorsal motor vagal complex) that are focused on safety and security as our primitives. The primitives react automatically to perceived threats, and do so without any error correction. They are the warring part of our brain. It is our primitives that spring into action during the debate. At a national level, a whole army of primitives are triggered by comments and slogans such as “nasty woman” and “lock her up.” No wonder a recent APA poll found that 52% of Americans have election stress disorder. Men and women reported being equally stressed.
In contrast with the primitives, our brain also has what I call the ambassadors. These parts of the brain (e.g., hippocampus, insula, orbitofrontal cortex) are socially sensitive, empathetic, diplomatic, reasonable, and thoughtful. Ambassadors are vital for adult love. As a nation, we need to be led by both our primitives and ambassadors.
This is a choice we must make at two levels. On the personal level, we make a choice to let our ambassadors lead. Every couple knows this: if you want a lasting, loving relationship, you can’t let your primitives run amok. Couple therapy is successful when partners learn to implement strategies to do this. On the national level, too, we need to move toward greater civility, respect, and compassion—both now and after the election. Let’s have our political dialogue, but please let’s do it in a manner that doesn’t create emotional disorder for more than half the population!
American Psychological Association. (2016). APA Survey reveals 2016 presidential election source of significant stress for more than half of Americans. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2016/10/presidential-election-str...
Tatkin, S. (2012). Wired for love: How understanding your partner's brain can help you defuse conflicts and spark intimacy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, is the author of Wired for Love, Wired for Dating, and Your Brain on Love, and coauthor of Love and War in Intimate Relationships. He has a clinical practice in Southern CA, teaches at Kaiser Permanente, and is an assistant clinical professor at UCLA. Tatkin developed a Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy® (PACT) and together with his wife, Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin, founded the PACT Institute.