November 01, 2016
Depending on your political bent, Donald Trump is either a tell-it-like-it-is political savior or hate-spewing threat to American democracy.
Likewise, Hillary Clinton is either the most qualified presidential candidate in recent memory or a deceitful political scion ducking criminal charges.
There seems to be no middle ground in the presidential election. And it's stressing people out.
"There is this psychological splitting where someone becomes all good or all bad," said Sanjay Nath, associate professor of clinical psychology at Widener University in Chester, Delaware County. "It's sort of a defensive reaction when you're trying to cope with something that's stressful. ... I think this election cycle, the rhetoric and the actual people involved have led to more splitting."
Splitting is a psychological process that creates an "us versus them" attitude, where one person or groups holds all the correct answers to a given problem or situation, Nath said. In reality, a candidate or an idea has both pros and cons, but splitting psychologically alters that perception.
The process commonly plays out on a personal level in tense situations, like in a spousal dispute or a disagreement between friends. Right now, it's playing out in the presidential election. Nath said the rhetoric of the campaigns feeds into it.
"It can incite a whole gamut of emotions – rage, anger, stress, fear, worry .... If people fear that they're kind of bullying or they're shaming in some way, that can depress you." – Frank Farley, psychology professor, Temple University
"One of Hillary's slogans is 'Love Trumps Hate," Nath said. "Love and hate are considered a natural split."
The language used by the campaigns, which suggests a clear right or wrong decision, particularly can stress out undecided voters, Nath said. And it can leave decided voters exasperated at those who haven't made a decision.
Many Americans cite the presidential race itself as stressful, or say they're fatigued by social media conversations surrounding it. And both Republicans and Democrats report being stressed at similar rates.
Fifty-two percent of American adults find the presidential election "a very or somewhat significant source of stress," according to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA). That included 59 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Democrats.
Similarly, The Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of people found social media conversations with people of opposing viewpoints stressful. And 37 percent said they were "worn out" by the amount of political content they observe on their social media feeds.
Frank Farley, a former APA president and professor of educational psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, was not surprised by the percentage of Americans stressed by the election.
Elections, in general, create a sense of uncertainty regarding the direction of the country, Farley said. The combativeness of both primaries has lengthened an exhaustive electoral process. And the uncertainties surrounding both candidates only adds the level of uncertainty, creating fear and anxiety.
"It's such a mosaic of uncertainty, if I may coin a phrase, that it may raise people's anxieties," Farley said. "We shouldn't be surprised that we're beginning to pick that up in surveys."
The language used by the candidates and their campaigns, such as Trump's "nasty woman" comment and Clinton's "basket of deplorables" remark, among other examples, has heightened an already stressful process, Farley said. Some people turn those criticisms into ironic rallying cries. But others are left stung.
"It can incite a whole gamut of emotions – rage, anger, stress, fear, worry," Farley said. "Some people might get depressed over the putdowns. If people fear that they're kind of bullying or they're shaming in some way, that can depress you."
In one week, the election will be completed (fingers-crossed) and the next president will be determined. But in such an intense election cycle, will that offer any real reprieve?
To help relieve the stress, Farley said the nation needs a new conversation piece to arise. Maybe the Cubs winning the World Series could prompt some relief, he suggested. Or chatter about the Super Bowl.
"We need variety in our lives — it's healthy," Farley said. "We need to be positive about things and look forward to new, interesting experiences. This thing has really dragged on very long. It's the cat chasing its tail at this point, just going around circles. ... I really think that, psychologically, we need some new experiences."