Managing Mental Health During a Tense Political Climate
U.S. politics have become increasingly divisive in recent years, and between 24-hour cable news channels and the constant barrage of news stories via social media and news apps, it’s nearly impossible to avoid the tension. Politics is seemingly at the center of conversation at the dinner table, the break room at work, and friends’ social media posts, and nearly any conversation topic can segue into an individual’s political stances.
With the endless stream of information, it’s no surprise that so many people are feeling a level of fear and distress related to politics. According to a recent study conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), more than 80 percent of Americans say that the nation’s future is a significant source of stress, compared to 69 percent of people in 2018. 72 percent of respondents said that this is the lowest point in the nation’s history that they can recall. A study conducted by the University of Nebraska shows that about 20 percent of Americans have experienced sleeplessness or have experienced damage to friendships because of politics.
Certain issues, such as gender, immigration, race and the role of government, have long been at the center of conflict. Historically, these disagreements occurred within parties. Today, Americans are divided fairly consistently under their party labels, meaning that members of one party tend to fall on one side of an issue while members of the other party hold an opposing stance. This reality has fueled political tribalism (PsychologyToday: Political Tribalism), or the strong bias towards one political party over another. As people increasingly identify with one side, they’re more likely to demonize the other.
To add even more fuel to the fire, political campaigns are becoming increasingly antagonistic and focus less on building support for ideas and more on tearing down the opposition. During the 1960 presidential campaign, only 10 percent of political ads were negative. In 2012, 86 percent were negative.
In too many cases, the effect of this modern-day tribalism is polarization. It goes beyond having a different opinion with a neighbor about important issues. Polarization occurs when individuals cluster themselves into groups that compete against each other and where negotiation and compromise are seen as a betrayal. It affects families, workplaces, residential communities and religious communities. In other words, political tribalism affects the very fabric of our society, and heightened stress and depression is a natural response.
Political Stress Syndrome and the Current Political Climate: Have We Changed?
Whether it’s due to the fact that fresh news stories are available on an hour-by-hour basis or that one crisis seems to crop up after another, people are becoming increasingly aware of the political factors affecting their mental health. While it feels like stress and anxiety from politics is at an all-time high, the truth is that political fatigue is nothing new to Americans.
For example, a reporter once noted the lack of interest in the congressional elections in New Hampshire, commenting that, “The people are utterly tired of politics.” That statement was published in the Atlanta Constitution in 1877. In an Iowa speech in 2011, President Obama voiced a similar sentiment, saying “people are tired of politics.”
Surprisingly, over the past decade, the amount of time people spend consuming news has remained fairly consistent. In 2010, people spent about 70 minutes per day reading or watching the news. In 2018, a similar study showed that the same amount of time was spent consuming news.
Politics and Mental Health
There’s nothing wrong with keeping up with local and national politics; some even argue that it’s an individual’s civic duty to understand current events, and following politics may help voters make informed decisions. However, political depression and political stress syndrome are real and have a significant impact on the quality of life for many people, particularly those who are already living with conditions like depression and anxiety.
In 2019, the Harris Poll conducted the Stress in America survey (APA: Stress in America Poll). According to the survey, about seven in 10 adults surveyed cited healthcare as a significant source of stress. 71 percent of respondents reported feeling stressed by mass shootings, compared to 62 percent of respondents in a 2018 survey. About half of adults cited immigration as a stressor, and 56 percent of adults said that they were concerned about climate change, compared to 51 percent in 2018.
Research shows that over time, continued stress takes not only a mental toll but a physical one as well. That’s because stress isn’t just a mental experience. The body releases stress hormones that affect the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, causing the body to take in more oxygen and divert it to the muscles to aid in quick action. In the event of an emergency, this stress response is useful, but if the body is in a continuous heightened state of stress, the heart works too hard for too long. The National Institute of Mental Health links chronic stress to heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. Chronic stress can also weaken the immune system, making the body more susceptible to viruses.
The body doesn’t differentiate between stress caused by a direct and immediate threat to the individual’s safety and distressing events on the news. For that reason, political stress syndrome should be addressed.
Managing Stress in a Tense Political Climate
It may feel like blocking out the political drama is a lost cause, but fortunately, for those who’ve experienced this political influence on their mental health, a few mindful steps can help them regain some sanity.
While it’s important to be informed, having a steady stream of social media alerts and news updates is exhausting. For those who feel anxious or overwhelmed after a few minutes of scrolling through their newsfeed, it may be time to take a break. Setting aside a specific time for catching up on the news and setting a time limit can restore a healthy balance.
Bow Out of Debates
Political debates among friends, family and coworkers can become heated very quickly. While it may not always be possible to avoid these debates, sometimes, it’s a good idea not to engage. If the individual knows the discussion is likely to become tense, they might consider excusing themself from the discussion, redirecting it, or changing the topic.
Take Meaningful Action
For a lot of people, political stress syndrome stems from feeling powerless to bring about change. Aside from voting, there are numerous meaningful actions that an individual can take to make a difference, including volunteering with a community group, campaigning for a cause they believe in, attending local town hall events, and joining political organizations.
Have an Open Mind
While humans are biologically wired towards tribalism, this mentality is generally counterproductive in the modern world. It may feel uncomfortable, but it’s important to make an effort to engage with and understand many points of view. This doesn’t mean that all opinions on race, gender, immigration, climate change or other important issues are equally valid, but making an effort to objectively see where those with opposing viewpoints are coming from can reduce stress and fear.
Talk to an Expert About Your Mental Health
At FHE, we understand that stress and anxiety levels are high, particularly when it comes to current events. If you’re struggling with your mental health, we are here to help. We offer a full array of personalized health services, including counseling, supportive group therapy, education on practical coping skills, massage, and acupuncture, enabling us to provide a tailored approach that meets the needs of each client. If politics are causing anxiety for you or someone you love, call us today at (877) 766-0424 to speak to a trained professional.