WASHINGTON — It was midway through the second presidential debate when Rebecca Goldfield got off the couch and started rummaging through her medicine chest.
Goldfield, a prize-winning writer and filmmaker who really, really hates Donald Trump, wanted something to calm herself down. All she found was a sedative that had expired 10 years ago. She took it anyway.
“I don’t usually take tranquilizers,” she said. “But my heart was racing, and I was desperate.”
Dr. Stephen Holland, a Washington psychologist whose specialty is anxiety disorders, was not surprised to hear it. Many stable, successful people he knows are suffering some kind of election-related anxiety or other mental malady, causing them to engage in unusual — and sometimes risky — behavior.
And he’s not feeling too well himself.
At a conference of psychologists last weekend, Holland recalled, “Every single one of us was obsessively checking the news sites and the polls. We were acting like our obsessive-compulsive disorder patients. With all the typical consequences.”
If the news was good, he said, it would ease their anxiety for a short time. But they inevitably felt the need to check again. Then, if they got bad news, their angst increased.
It’s a vicious cycle, but not uncommon. Election-related stress is everywhere. But Holland and other mental health professionals say this year’s campaign has brought a marked increase in patients presenting with anxiety and other disorders, like OCD, avoidance, sleep disruption, irritability, drinking problems, and depression.
Holland has diagnosed himself with what, half-kiddingly, he calls Obsessive-Compulsive Poll-Checking Disorder.
Some level of anxiety is natural and harmless over a short-term, mental health specialists say. Nightmares may be natural, or a level of irritability might be unavoidable and nonthreatening.
But others experience bona fide psychological disorders, requiring the intervention of a professional therapist.
“One gauge is how it’s affecting your work,” said Dr. Benjamin Flores, a former psychiatry professor at Stanford University medical school, who now has a popular practice in Palo Alto, Calif. “How is your focus on the election affecting your relationships, your friendships and family? “
Or, he added, are you drinking more, smoking more, or taking more drugs?
If you are doing more of that to relieve your stress, Flores said, you may reach a clinical level of depression and anxiety — from which it could be tough to recover.
“What’s interesting, professionally, is that there’s this slope that we can see with stress and anxiety, where up to a certain point it actually heightens our sense of energy and ability to concentrate and even heighten our sense of well-being,” Flores said.
The downside: when that stress and anxiety becomes too intense, week after week. If you can’t stop thinking about the race between Hillary Clinton and Trump and the latest revelations, you will eventually experience adverse effects “on cognition and mood, and biologically, in terms of heart rate, cholesterol, carbohydrate cravings.’’
In such a situation, Flores said, it’s important to focus on what you can control: exercising, eating healthy foods, maintaining your normal schedule.
“The more your usual healthy routine becomes replaced and focused around the polls and the election, that’s an early warning that you may be going down a road from which you will have cognitive and physical problems,” he said.
So, where’s the line? How can you tell if your normal behavior has morphed into a clinical disorder?
There are signs. Say you have stopped walking your dog because you fear passing the neighbor’s sign for the candidate you despise. Psychologists call this “avoidance.” There is benign avoidance, and going overboard.
Then, there’s “catastrophizing,” the escalation of a normal worry into something beyond all reason. A hallmark of the condition: developing a fear that terrible things will happen that are beyond your control.
“We have a level of perceived threat at this point, and that is what is driving us all to anxiety behavior,” Holland said. “So we are doing things that are biologically adaptive. We are hyper-aroused, awake at night.”
Part of the remedy, he said, is remembering that it’s not our fault.
Dr. Michael C. Miller, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said it’s important to have a post-election psychological plan.
Miller advised separating one’s feelings about the horse-race aspect of the campaign from the real impact the election will have on one’s life.
“Ultimately the outcome of this election is likely to have less impact on individuals, day to day, than we think,” said Miller, a Democrat. “It’s important to keep that in perspective.”
It is more adaptive, Miller added, to turn that disappointment into something productive — and also to seek help.
“If you find yourself caught up in a cycle of being paralyzed by the results,” he said. “It’s probably time to talk to your doctor.”