World

High anxiety over U.S. election drives a wedge through communities

The relentless barrage of advertising and social media is making some people physically sick, a doctor says, stress compounded because many Americans believe that the world will fall apart if the wrong party wins. Politics is disrupting life everywhere, Lyndsay Duncombe reports, including the sanctuary of the barber's chair.

Many voters believe the world will fall apart if the wrong party wins

'When you start talking politics, people get, like mad,' says barbershop owner Roseann Calabritto in Winston-Salem, N.C. 'We've lost clients over it.' (Patti Jette/CBC)

In downtown Winston Salem, N.C., the Clubhouse Salon for Men is part barbershop, part man cave.

The walls are decorated with taxidermy, clients sip beer while they get their hair cut, and three big dogs laze between mirrored stations. 

But this sanctuary of manly grooming is not immune to the hostilities of the 2016 election. 

"When you start talking politics, people get, like mad," barbershop owner Roseann Calabritto says as she snips. "We've lost clients over it. Over disagreements, and I'm like, we don't have to agree on this. I'm like, I just cut your hair. That's it."
'People can actually see a political advertisement and get mad,' says Dr. Ken Dunham. 'They feel their heart rate changing, they start sweating.' (Patti Jette/CBC)

Her client Brian Swenk nods. A supporter of Hillary Clinton, he prides himself on having friendly debates with conservative friends. 

But something is different about this election. 

"Everybody's stressed about it. It's really driven each side apart, we're all becoming more extreme," says Swenk. 

A recent survey by the American Psychological Association found 52 per cent of American adults say the 2016 election is a very or somewhat significant source of stress. Nearly four in 10 adults blamed political or cultural discussions on social media. 

Dr. Ken Dunham says this election is making people sick. (Patti Jette/CBC)

"Everybody can cope with negative things for a short period of time," says Dr. Ken Dunham, a psychiatrist with Novant Health in Winston-Salem. But the relentless barrage of advertising and social media is making some people physically sick, he says. 

"People can actually see a political advertisement and get mad. They feel their heart rate changing, they start sweating. What they are seeing and what they are feeling actually changes them physically." 

Dunham says the stress is compounded because many Americans have bought into campaign rhetoric suggesting the "world will fall apart" if the wrong party wins. The tense climate is especially worrisome for some patients with severe mental illness. 

"If someone has homicidal ideations or thoughts, they are thinking about hurting somebody, and then they hear a presidential candidate encourage it or imply that it's OK to hurt people, then they may be more likely to go out and do it, 'cause they feel like their thoughts are legitimized," Dunham says.  

"That's the scary part," says Swenk from the barber's chair. "People thinking they just may have to revolt because the system's rigged."

Swenk thinks the divisions are just too deep for the stress to evaporate immediately after the election. 

But he's already done what psychologists recommend to reduce election anxiety. 

He voted early. 

Now he just has to wait for the rest of the country to catch up. 

Voters fill in their ballots at a crowded polling station on North Carolina's first day of early voting for the general elections, in Carrboro, on Oct. 20. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

About the Author

Lyndsay Duncombe

Senior Washington editor

Lyndsay Duncombe is the senior Washington editor at CBC News. She co-ordinates coverage of U.S. politics for all platforms and has worked as a producer, reporter and anchor at CBC since 2001.