The midterm elections are turning out to be nearly as stressful as the 2016 presidential election — especially for Democrats.
According to a poll conducted by YouGov and commissioned by the fitness site Daily Burn, Democrats are 50 percent more likely than Republicans to say they’re “eating their feelings” as a result of the current political climate. They’re also drinking more (a 2-to-1 ratio over their GOP counterparts).
The ostensibly good news is that these stressed out Democrats are also working out more, by as much as 40 percent; but even exercise can be overdone.
“I’m seeing some people so stressed at the moment they're doing two, even three soul cycle classes at day,” Dr. Navya Mysore, a primary care doctor, tells NBC News BETTER. “Exercise is good for you, but too much is not. You [risk] dehydration and your body needs time to rest and rejuvenate.”
Binging on de-stressors backfires
What appears to be happening among many concerned voters, is that they’re resorting excessively to the habits that help us de-stress, whether that’s eating, drinking or exercising.
“Depending on how you’re used to dealing with stress, people tend to gravitate toward that habit more,” says Dr. Mysore. “If you had a hard day, you’ll have a glass of wine, so maybe you’re doing that more. Same for people who are stress eaters — they’ll eat more. If you're more prone to sweat it out when stressed, then you'll do that more.”
Binging almost always leaves us feeling crummy, even if what we’re binging on is as benign as Netflix (which Daily Burn’s poll found both Democrats and Republicans are doing plenty of in reaction to the fraught political climate).
How do we stop the stress-induced madness?
We turned to health experts for practical tips on managing binge-y behavior when stressed.
Turn off the news if you need to — it’s firing up your limbic system
The first step in managing election-related stress is to disconnect, if only periodically, from the news.
“On a practical level, try to limit the amount of news you consume on a daily basis,” says Allison Abrams, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker. “This doesn’t mean not stay informed, rather, be informed but set boundaries for yourself.”
Boundaries with the news are necessary if we want to maintain our mental well being because the news is so often an emotionally negative experience. It can, as Loretta Brady, Ph.D, professor of psychology at Saint Anselm College puts it “fire up our limbic system, the emotion center of our brain.”
Eating and drinking start out great, but then…
“This activation leaves us physiologically reacting to stress even though our immediate circumstances may not be different,” Brady notes. “We may be less aware of our response to this stress, mindlessly reaching for substances that calm the reactivity, substances like sweets and comfort food are plentiful at this time of year, between autumn chili cook-offs and Halloween candy. We do get mood boosts from consuming such food, but also some consequences we may not intend.”
Alcohol has a similarly euphoric effect — but things can quickly go downhill.
“If you find you unwind with wine, which is normally what happens with a certain amount of alcohol, and then on top of that you enjoy the habit, serotonin will also be released,” says Dr. Mysore. “Those first sips or first bite of cake, you've filled that need and you feel better. ‘It's so worth it,’ is what first goes through your mind. But if you go overboard, you will lose that serotonin effect. You'll start to wind down a path where you'll get a serotonin dip, have sleep disruption, get a headache can add to anxiety or depression if you have a preexisting condition.”
You should still exercise, but space out the tough workouts
Though too much exercise can be hard on your body, working out is generally still a positive way to reduce stress.
Dr. Mysore recommends alternating high intensity workouts by at least every other day, and doing lighter workouts on the other days (these lighter ones can still be cardio, but go easy on the weights).
“I suggest no matter where you are in your level or capacity that you get in at least 150 minutes of moderate cardio per week,” says Mysore. “Moderate means your heart rate is up and you're sweating. This helps prevent and reduce cardiovascular disease. I think doing this all in one day is too much. I will often tell people who want to do more to stick to no more than one workout a day. If you're doing body weight exercises, those space out every other day. Do a low impact workout the next day like yoga, pilates or some light cardio. Spacing it out will provide a great endorphin release but won’t make your body burn out. Even working out for 10 minutes can help.”
Keep a food-mood journal to connect the dots
If you’re emotionally eating, Jonathan Alpert, a psychotherapist, executive performance coach and author of “Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days,” recommends keeping a daily list of what you’re eating along with how you’re feeling.
“Make columns with the following headers: What type of food am I reaching for?; What’s my emotional state?; What’s going on in my life right now that’s leading to this emotion?; What’s an alternative behavior to eating [this if its unhealthy]?”
You may still reach for those chips or ice cream after making your list, but at least you can connect the dots about why you’re doing this and recognize if you’re feeling more poorly than you realize. Ideally though you can take this pause as an opportunity to stop in your tracks and make a better food choice or pick up a book instead of a pint.
Don’t keep junk food or booze at home
The easier it is to access a vice, the more you’re likely to access it. Keep the sweets and liquor outside of the house if you’re trying to ease up on indulging.
“If they’re not at home, then you’re less likely to eat them,” says Alpert. “Instead, keep healthy alternatives nearby such as fruit slices and vegetable sticks. You might also freeze grapes to provide a frozen treat, or eat Greek yogurt to simulate the texture of ice cream.”
If keeping this stuff out of your home isn’t an option (let’s say this past weekend you held a World Series party), then just simply keeping them out of easy reach can be effective.
“Make [junk] foods hard to get to, such as keeping them on the top shelf of a rarely used cabinet,” suggests Sari Chait, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and owner of the Behavioral Health and Wellness Center in Newton, Massachusetts. “If you have to work hard to get to the potato chips, it gives you a minute to stop and reset. That built0in pause can be enough to help you remember that you don’t want to eat that food and to instead do something like a breathing exercise or go for a walk to deal with your anxiety.”
Don’t engage in negative self-talk
If you’re eating a tin of Pringles while you’re reading this, resist thinking badly about yourself.
“Self-talk can be your worst enemy or your best friend. Thinking, ‘I’m such an emotional mess and pig’ will probably keep you stuck in unhealthy patterns,” says Alpert. “While thoughts such as ‘I am going to take charge of my health and manage stress better’ will lead to better behaviors and a healthier lifestyle.”
Get out of your head and out in the community
Emotional eating, drinking your feelings and even excess workouts aren’t productive ways of handling any amount of stress, and they certainly won’t help shift the results of the election.
Rather than succumbing to this lonely feeling of powerlessness, get more involved with the political changes you want to see.
“Find a way to get involved in the process — go out and vote, volunteer for a cause you believe in and contribute to causes that you find important,” says Dr. Helen Odessky is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of “Stop Anxiety From Stopping You: The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Panic and Social Anxiety.”
By making a difference hands-on, even in small ways, you’ll probably feel more inspired to get back on track to the things that help defeat stress on a daily level like gratitude, positivity and self-care.