As election 2020 stirs up stress, anxiety and anger, some people are tuning out entirely

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The garden at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Esalen CEO Terry Gilbey expects the institute to be completely booked for months, as people yearn for peace following the 2020 election. Photo courtesy of Wes Robinson

There’s no cell service at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, a retreat center on the cliffs of the Central Coast where you can partake in guided meditation, practice yoga, and bathe in hot springs.

“It's an amazingly unique experience for people to have a little bit of a digital detox and really reconnect, reconnect to self, reconnect to each other, where we may have become numb,” says Esalen CEO Terry Gilbey.

This week, the institute is completely booked, and Gilbey expects it to stay that way for months, as the aftermath of the 2020 election wreaks havoc on our mental health and people yearn for peace of mind.

A study conducted on behalf of the American Psychological Association found that 68% of American adults said the 2020 election was a significant source of stress in their life, up from 52% in 2016. Couples therapist Steven Stosny coined the term “Election Stress Disorder” during the last presidential election to describe the outpouring of anxiety he was seeing in his practice.

And it’s not just stress we’re feeling. UCLA political science and psychology professor Efrén Pérez says one of the strongest emotions activating this year’s election is anger.

“When you trigger anger collectively among some groups of people, that's one of the most energizing emotional states,” he says. “You’re already seen snippets of this, people waiting in rainstorms, waiting hours to cast their ballot. And it's not lost on me that a lot of those individuals happen to be people of color. And it’s because they’re mad.”

But while anger can have a mobilizing effect, Pérez says other emotions can be paralyzing.

“For the folks that are predisposed to feeling depressed, and politics and [the] pandemic are not helping things, withdrawal is the general strategy,” he says. “So one consequence might be, ‘I just tune out, period.’”

Pérez doesn’t think the act of tuning out is altogether a bad idea. As an anxious person himself, he avoids news coverage when it becomes mentally exhausting. 

“If I tune in every other day, I'm not going to miss a whole lot about the tenor of the conversation,” he says. “And then that leaves me time to do what I think are more constructive things with my time, which would be maybe spending time with my kids, spending time with my wife, and so that’s how I deal.”

On Election Day and the days, weeks and months that follow, Pérez has this advice:

“Focus on the things that you can control. Be very aggressive about how you scrutinize the information around you, and take a long ball approach — months rather than hours,” he says.

Ellena Osis, 42, is planning to tune out entirely on Election Day. She can’t head off to a retreat center like Esalen, but she’s decided to retreat at home.

“I'll be doing a staycation,” she says. “I've already made it known that I'm deleting every social media platform, including email from my phone. I have a home repair project planned … so no live TV, no internet, nothing.”

She says she learned her lesson in 2016, when the stress of election night led her to take a late night jog, run out of battery on her phone, and then get flooded with anxiety-ridden texts and social media alerts when she plugged it back in.

“This year has been a roller coaster for all of our mental health. And I think the election is kind of going to be the cherry on top of the 2020 sundae,” she says.

So this year on election night, she’ll be staying six feet apart from her devices and focused on what she can control: repainting her hallway from green to a muted, pale grey.

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