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Combination of pandemic, election worries drives US stress levels up

Stress levels are rising among Americans living amid a persistent nationwide pandemic and turbulent election season, according to an American Psychological Association study released last month.

The pandemic and election season have contributed to Americans’ increased stress levels, according to a American Psychological Association study. ANNALYN KUMAR/ DFP FILE

The United States is experiencing a “mental health crisis” that may cause social and health problems extending years into the future, the study stated.

The report found the future of the nation was a “significant” source of stress for 77 percent of adults, compared to 66 percent in 2019. The pandemic has also induced “significant” stress for 78 percent of adults.

Generation Z adults reported the highest stress levels across all demographics in September, rating theirs at approximately 6 out of 10 on average. Two in three Gen Z adults had reported the prospect of this year’s U.S. presidential race contributed to this stress. 

Kevin Cannon, a psychologist at Kendall Psychological Associates in Cambridge, said patients have “plenty of things” to be stressed about in current circumstances.

“People are becoming more stressed about the election, about COVID-19, the economy, job security, climate change,” Cannon said. “All these things are, in a lot of ways, for a lot of people, tied into this election.”

Patients of all political identities are experiencing rising unease, Cannon said. Though personal experiences differ, Cannon said, fear often factors into this feeling. 

“Everyone is really stressed and worried about the same thing: their belief system, their way of life, their view of America changing in some unalterable way,” Cannon said.

Some groups, such as immigrants, he added, can be especially harmed by the outcome of an election and the policies that result.

Mary Cohen, a school psychologist and comprehensive behavioral health model district coach for Boston Public Schools, said striking a balance between political engagement and mental wellness is important to improving mental health.

“It’s going to make us feel more connected and more powerful, and therefore perhaps less anxious or removed from things that matter to us,” Cohen said.

Ellen Slawsby, an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, said meditation and exercise can help Americans cope with the stress of political involvement. 

“Picking a mantra-type word and breathing in ‘peace,’ for example, and out ‘tension’ … for three to five breaths,” Slawsby said. “Get outside, walk, run.”

Stress surrounding politics is most prevalent during election seasons, she said, a phenomenon for which one therapist coined a term: “election stress disorder.”

Spending more time with like-minded individuals and less time with those who have differing political opinions can reduce election-related stress, according to Slawsby.

What can also help, she said, is recognizing and appreciating the way people are helping each other out in a community. Frontline workers in hospitals, supermarkets and polling stations are all contributing to the well-being of society, she said.

“There’s an awful lot of goodness that’s going on during this pandemic,” Slawbsy said.

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