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Stress of U.S. Politics Taking Mental, Physical Toll on Americans
  • Posted September 25, 2019

Stress of U.S. Politics Taking Mental, Physical Toll on Americans

U.S. politics has been incredibly divisive in recent years, and will likely only grow worse as President Donald Trump faces possible impeachment over the Ukrainian scandal.

So it's no wonder the stress of ugly national politics has started to affect the emotional and physical health of some citizens, as a new study suggests.

Nearly two out of every five Americans say politics is stressing them out, and one in five are sleepless or have had friendships damaged over politics, the researchers found.

"A surprisingly large number of American adults perceive their engagement in politics as having negative effects on their social, emotional and even physical health," said lead researcher Kevin Smith, chair of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Tuesday that the House of Representatives will begin impeachment inquiries, accusing Trump of a "betrayal of his oath of office" in asking Ukraine's newly elected president to investigate a Democratic rival for the U.S. presidency.

Things only intensified Wednesday when the Trump administration released a memorandum of his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump pressed his counterpart for an investigation of presidential candidate Joe Biden and offered U.S. assistance for such a probe.

The new survey of 800 people nationwide, conducted prior to these latest revelations, indicated that politics are creating a burgeoning public health crisis in the United States, Smith said.

Many report politics stresses them out in several ways

Among the survey's other findings:

  • More than one in 10 people felt politics had adversely affected their physical health.
  • Nearly one-third said they'd been driven crazy by media outlets that promote views contrary to their personal beliefs.
  • Three in 10 Americans said they'd lost their temper over politics.
  • A quarter of people said that politics has led them to hate some people, and to think seriously about moving away from their community.
  • About 22% said they care too much about who wins and who loses.
  • About 15% said they wish they would have restrained themselves more in political conversations or have posted things online that they later regretted.

These results mirror a 2017 "Stress in America" survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), said Lynn Bufka, the APA's associate executive director for practice, research and policy.

In that earlier study, she said, two-thirds of Americans said the future of the nation is a very or somewhat significant source of stress, even more so than usual stressors like money or work. More than half said they consider this the lowest point in U.S. history they can remember.

Political stress appears to be taking a greater toll on people from the left side of the political spectrum, potentially tied to the controversial 2016 election cycle and Trump's confrontational style of governing, Smith said.

However, it is possible that this politically driven stress has been around since before Trump, but no one asked the question, Smith and Bufka said.

"We don't know what people would have reported with previous presidents," Bufka said, noting that other researchers have cited former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama as "very polarizing presidents themselves."

"It could be there has been a fair amount of polarization and stress associated with politics that's been increasing over the past decades, but it's hard to say," Bufka said.

Political concerns coming up in therapy sessions

Dr. Michelle Riba, a past president of the American Psychiatric Association, said that anecdotally at least it appears people are coming to therapy more often with political concerns on their mind.

Prior to the Trump administration, patients troubled by current events usually wanted to talk about recent tragic events like the 9/11 attacks or the Columbine shootings, said Riba, a professor of psychiatry with the University of Michigan.

Now, people tend to bring the day's political concerns to their therapist's couch.

"It depends on what's going on that day, but people are bringing in some of the issues into sessions more than I can remember in a long time," Riba said.

What can be done? One option is disengaging yourself from politics, but Smith is reluctant to endorse that.

"The people who seem to be least affected by this are the people who are not politically interested or engaged," Smith said. "As a political scientist, it runs against my grain to even hint that people should back off from civic engagement."

But a bit of civility might help reduce stress levels related to politics, Smith offered.

"If people were willing to engage in political disagreements a little more civilly, be a little less quick to attribute malevolent intent to people who have different political views from you, I think that would certainly cool the temperature a bit," Smith said.

Ways to counter stress of highly charged political climates

People driven to distraction by politics can undertake some proven methods of stress relief like exercise, eating right, getting good sleep, and enjoying time with family and friends, Riba suggested.

And if it all gets to be too much, it is OK to take a break from the constant news feed, Bufka added.

"It's important for individuals to give themselves an opportunity to take a break from social media and the news, from where they're getting information that they find stressful," Bufka said. "We live in an era where you can get information all the time, so you have to be fairly intentional to give yourself a space to get away from that."

In any case, people feeling stressed by politics should absolutely take steps to lower their anxiety, Bufka said.

"Ignoring it is not going to make it better, so being more active and thoughtful about how to manage what is causing us stress will lead us to better health in the long term," Bufka said.

The new study was published Sept. 25 in the journal PLOS ONE.

More information

The American Psychological Association has more about coping with stress.

SOURCES: Kevin Smith, Ph.D., chair, political science, University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Lynn Bufka, Ph.D., associate executive director for practice, research and policy, American Psychological Association; Michelle Riba, M.D., past president, American Psychiatric Association; Sept. 25, 2019, PLOS ONE
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