The Politics of Anxiety

My wife said she couldn’t stand to watch the second presidential debate,” recalls Rob. “She flipped to the Sci Fi Channel and held onto the remote so I couldn’t get near it. I mean, I came home specifically to watch this thing and instead I got Star Trek. I was too tired to fight about it, but I was pissed-off enough to bring it up with Marcia. We were discussing my wife’s ‘escape mentality.’ ”

“Marcia” is Marcia Wood, otherwise known as Rob’s analyst. And like many therapists in Manhattan, she has been hearing all about the campaign. “It’s a function of uncertainty,” she says. “The normal anxiety of an election is heightened by the war on terrorism.”

Nor will the post-election world (whenever it begins) necessarily bring Klonopin-like relief. “I’ll be elated if Kerry wins,” says Joe, another patient. “But I fear that the damage caused by Bush may be insurmountable. I believe we’ll be attacked again. I travel to Europe and Asia for business, and I’ve never felt such a groundswell of hatred for Americans. And if this country reelects him, the rest of the world will think we’re just like him.”

Joe has also become obsessed with his son’s sushi habit. “My son loves sushi. Every Tuesday is sushi night. But I just finished Robert Kennedy’s book about what the Bush administration has done to the environment. It’s unsafe for my kid to eat fish. He has to get his mercury levels checked. ”

Joe has been discussing all this with his psychiatrist, Alan Manevitz, who believes that the nation’s polariza-tion is fraying already-fragile psyches. “Politics have become a form of religion again,” he explains. “No one has any ability to listen to anyone else. It’s created great distress in relationships and among friends. You’re either part of the tribe or you’re excommunicated.”

Wood says that another one of her patients is sure of his position in New York’s predominant pro-Kerry tribe—but still found himself sympathizing with the lone Republican in the office when his co-workers “began shouting things like, ‘Americans are morons voting for Bush! A bunch of idiots watching game shows.’ It made his blood boil.”

None of the therapists consider election anxiety worthy of an actual diagnosis. And one Upper East Side psychopharmacologist, Ira Lipton, says that he hasn’t seen a “serious depressive problem that required medication.”

But the doctors do agree that symptoms can range from minor depression to social isolation. Take for example the “very social being” who came into Dr. T. Byram Karasu’s uptown office and reported that he was no longer going to dinner parties because the inevitable discussion of the election had ruined one too many nights out. “He walks out depleted, futureless, and hopeless,” Karasu says. “There’s no joy in going to see friends. The dinner parties have become an anxiety-generating phenomenon.”

Then there’s Nancy, a bipolar patient of Manevitz’s (and a Kerry volunteer) who has been traumatized by presidential elections ever since the assassination of JFK. A couple of months ago, she burst into tears when a pundit on TV brought her to the realization that Bush might win. “Anytime there’s extra stress in my world, it can bring about more mania or depression,” she says.

Much of the election stress “is related to issues with parental figures,” offers Upper East Side psychoanalyst Janice Lieberman. “George W. Bush is the father figure, and he has not protected us.”

Perhaps that Freudian analysis explains the symptoms seen by Dr. Elliot Wineburg, an assistant clinical professor at Mount Sinai. “Some people are so concerned, their sexual activity is not proceeding the way it should,” he says, though he declines to quantify the size of this burgeoning group, noting only that it is “significant.”

“Their libido is going down. During the blackout in the late seventies, we saw the birth rate go up nine months later. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the opposite happens this time.”

The Politics of Anxiety