Politics & Mental Health

Six steps on how to follow politics without losing your mind.

Illustration by Peter Grabowski.

Seven hundred and twenty eight days.

Like so many other Americans, I immediately began counting down the days from the 2016 election until the following midterms. Despite getting around three million fewer votes, Donald Trump was elected. Adding to the anguish, Republicans would control all levers of power: the presidency, both chambers of Congress, and the Supreme Court.

Those first two years were particularly brutal. A reckless president bulldozed his way through institutions, norms, and the will of the American public. A sheepish Congress permitted it. The judicial system didn’t fare much better.

Luckily, through sheer incompetence, Trump was only able to muster a singular legislative achievement in those first two years — a tax cut, primarily for the wealthy and large corporations. Other legislative pushes, including an effort to repeal Obamacare, were derailed. As the political scientist Sarah Binder puts it, “Despite unified party control in the 115th Congress (2017–18), House and Senate GOP majorities struggled to legislate: GOP fissures and an undisciplined, unpopular president frequently undermined the Republican agenda.”

Hope springs eternal, and the fight to retake the House of Representatives was on. Despite low unemployment, which typically benefits the incumbent party, forecasters projected election night to be fruitful for Democrats. Nate Silver’s three models projected a Democratic net gain in the House of 39, 38, and 36 seats. Democrats ended up netting 41 seats while setting some impressive records.

But it wasn’t all good news for those of us rooting for Democrats.

I was watching the midterm election coverage on cable news. In the bottom right of the screen, there was a projection for the likelihood that Democrats would retake the House, which would finally apply at least one check on Trump’s power.

Early in the night, before the polls even closed, the projected probability for Democrats to win the House was something like 78%. I remember thinking to myself that I wish this were higher, but given our polarized times, I’d rather be on the 78% side than the 22% side. As results and exit polling data rolled in, that 78% number would be updated in real time.

That’s when it started happening.

Some of the eastern time zone races didn’t break our way. While they weren’t House races, in Florida Bill Nelson lost his Senate seat to Rick Scott, and Andrew Gillum lost the governorship to Ron DeSantis. In Indiana, Mike Braun beat Democratic incumbent Joe Donnelly.

As these early results came in, that 78% probability graphic kept lowering — 72%, 65%, 54%. At one brief moment, before the polls were even closed on the west coast, the probability that the Democrats would be the majority in the new House dipped below 50%.

My leg was nervously shaking a bit. I didn’t even notice it until I looked over at it. My chest felt a bit tight. “Maybe I’ll switch the channel for a bit,” I told myself. I wasn’t having a full blown panic attack, but I was experiencing some symptoms of anxiety and nervousness. I was in a foul mood as well.

That’s when it hit me — I was too involved in politics. The United States’ political reality became my personal reality. Politics transformed from something I passively partook in to something that actively controlled me.

By the end of the night, as it became clear that Democrats would indeed retake the House, my mood became much better. But it shouldn’t have come to that. I vowed to make changes.

Now, just weeks away from a presidential election, I can happily report that my overall mental state as it relates to politics is much less volatile. Here is how you too can stay sane:

1. You don’t have to know everything.

The news cycle during the Trump presidency is about 12 minutes. The tweets, scandals, gaffes, sound bites, and other abnormalities are enough to saturate even the most hardened political junkies.

To be a knowledgeable voter, you only have to know enough to make a well-informed choice. Will this person represent my values or positions? It’s impossible to follow every story. For example, you may have heard that President Trump called dead US soldiers “suckers” and “losers.” You may have also heard that in ten of the last 15 years, he paid no federal tax, and while serving as president, has paid only $750 a year in federal taxes.

These two recent stories are important. But did you also know that Trump has retweeted a video of one of his supporters yelling “white power,” publicly endorsed a doctor who believes in alien DNA and demon sperm during a public health crisis, and encouraged Republican voters in the swing state of North Carolina to vote twice?

Those secondary stories are important, but maybe not as important as the bigger stories. It’s understandable if you miss some of the smaller news-making so long as you stay informed on the most consequential stories.

2. Do something.

Feeling helpless only makes it worse. There are concrete ways to get involved, like donating, volunteering, or voter outreach.

It doesn’t have to be big, either. In addition to registering voters, I write political columns and host a political podcast. Only a few thousand people a month read my articles, and only a few hundred listen to any one podcast. But it’s something. And something is always better than nothing.

3. Develop separate hobbies/interests.

Politics has devolved into a horse race — who’s up, who’s down. Who had a good week, what are the latest polls saying, etc. Betting markets for politics have exploded in popularity in recent years.

In reality, politics should be a more macro approach to how we order society. Who has power? What should the role of government be in our lives? Who is the system designed to protect?

Diversify your personal time. Endless scrolling and getting outraged over fringe issues has always signified to me that an individual hasn’t developed into a complete, multi-faceted individual yet. If you find yourself over-invested in politics, ask “what did I use to do?” If you used to follow sports, be more social, workout, etc, then try taking up those activities again. If those interests seem stale, then find new ones.

Politics can be your primary interest, but it shouldn’t be your only interest.

4. Understand that regardless of who wins, much of your life will remain the same.

This is probably the most controversial step. Allow me to explain.

I am not a political nihilist, the most recent in vogue trend of believing that nothing matters in politics. While there is a swamp stench on both parties, there are fundamental differences, and I implore you to vote for the party/candidate that best upholds your interests.

Elections have consequences, and this cannot be ignored. The last four years would have been particularly troubling if you are a DREAMer, for example, as who who wins this election may very well determine where you will live in the future.

Or if you have pre-existing medical conditions, you may soon lose protections. In a more general sense, we are all suffering from the lack of action on climate change. We will eventually have to pay for Trump’s historic addition to our national debt.

But day-to-day life will have some unmistakable consistencies regardless of who wins this November. Even if “your guy” or “your team” wins, there will be sad days. If “the “other guy” or the “other team” wins, there will be happy days. Neighbors, friends, and family will remain constant. You can still pursue happiness. Adopting this mindset can offset the worst symptoms of mental distress if this election doesn’t go as you would like it to go.

5. Log off social media, especially Twitter.

This one should be self-explanatory.

A recent study found that only 10% of Twitter users account for 97% of all political tweets. Social media generally (and Twitter specifically) just don’t accurately reflect national politics.

Either you follow likeminded accounts and run the risk of being stuck in echo chambers, or you see what the other side is up to and lose your mind in the lies and hypocrisy. It’s a classic lose-lose. The internet is rife with former political news junkies who quit Twitter and swear by it.

6. Realize that elections are out of your control.

You most likely don’t have millions of dollars to donate. You can’t talk to every swing voter in the six battleground states. You likely don’t have a robust audience to sway either way.

Make sure you vote and get involved. Stay well-informed so you can make a wise electoral decision. Beyond that, understand that there are hundreds of millions of eligible voters in the United States, and every election won’t go your way.

The good news is that, historically anyway, it is rare for one political party to occupy the White House for more than two consecutive terms. In this regard, American politics is quite stable.

Just vote. If you ignore the system, the system will ignore you.

Be like me on November 3rd — vote early in the day, and stay away from your television and phone the rest of the day.

And whatever you do, don’t watch those stupid probabilities that get updated in real time. That way lies madness.

political science researcher. former valedictorian. reader/writer. host of “Politics Mostly” podcast.

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