The 2020 Primaries Are Here. So Is Election Needle Anxiety.

by Jo Yurcaba
Margaret Flatly/Bustle

Somehow, it's been almost four years since the last presidential election, and 2020's first major election events are already underway. Only a week after the drama-filled Iowa caucuses came the New Hampshire primaries on Feb. 11, and Nevada's primary will follow on Feb. 22. With these primaries come the return of the dreaded election needle — a particular source of election-related anxiety.

The election needle "estimate[s] the final result of an election before all the votes have been counted," according to The New York Times. The Times needle infamously gave now-President Donald Trump just a 16% chance of winning at the start of election night in 2016; voters assured of a Clinton win watched in dread as it slowly edged to declare him the winner.

Now, the needle is back for primary season, but people aren't happy about its return. "The Election Needle is a device straight out of a Saw movie," R. Eric Thomas wrote for Elle after the 2018 midterms. "Who else but Jigsaw could think of something so dread-inducing and terrifying as a visualization of one's impending doom?"

One expert tells Bustle that these needles and the endless push notifications contribute directly to election anxiety. It's manageable, but it might mean staying far, far away from the Times needle.

Andy Schwehm, a therapist with Alma, a community for mental health professionals, tells Bustle that in the past three years, he's seen a massive increase in the amount of anxiety around elections and politics in general. Often the people who are more stressed about elections are those who are invested in causes like LGBTQ rights or abortion access. "Whenever you get somebody who's passionate about a cause that is being threatened, it makes us a lot more vulnerable to feeling a heightened level of stress," he says.

Smartphones only worsen that stress, but people still check news notifications anyway. "Even though it causes pain, there's this pleasure that comes with it," Schwehm says. When humans engage in activities they enjoy, their brains produce dopamine, which acts as a chemical "reward" that motivates us to continue repeating that behavior. Receiving notifications specifically can be a "social reward" that can lead to repetitive or even addictive behavior. "Your brain thinks it feels good, but it's also causing you a lot of distress," Schwehm says.

The needle is just one of many digital tools used to predict election results before they're in. Even non-needle predictors can be an emotional rollercoaster; FiveThirtyEight's real-time forecast flip-flopped wildly during the 2018 midterms. If the needle or other notifications are causing you anxiety, Schwehm says the first think you should do is turn it off, which he admits is easier said than done. If you can't cut yourself off from the needle or election updates completely, consider deleting Facebook or Twitter from your phone. "Set aside a certain amount of time per day or per week that you're willing to look at [social media] or that you think would be healthy," Schwehm says.

If you feel the urge to check the news once that allotted time has passed, Schwehm suggests having other activities — even if they're also on your phone — lined up to keep yourself busy. For example, you could do a crossword puzzle, or use a meditation or mindfulness app. It should be an activity that you enjoy, have engaged in before, and can do in that moment to replace the activity that causes anxiety.

If you feel specific stress over election night updates, Schwehm suggests learning how to sit with those uncomfortable emotions. He tells his clients that it's OK to be anxious and angry, but suggests that they just sit with that emotion rather than acting on it. He also going device-free an hour before bedtime to let your brain wind down. "The next morning the results will be there," he says.