According to political experts, these US presidential elections have become ‘historic’. And by historical, they probably mean exceptionally bleak and damaging. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that the elections are stressing people out.
According to an annual poll on the country’s stress levels, the American Psychological Association reports that 52 percent of adults are “somewhat” or “very” stressed by the run for the Oval Office. That mental anguish is felt about equally across party lines, with 59 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Democrats registering as stressed. Women and men are also equally stressed, at 52 and 51 percent respectively.
Data from the online poll, conducted between August 5 and August 31, 2016, offers a few hints at the factors fueling election anxiety. The poll includes data from 3,511 US adults and is weighted to reflect national demographics. The APA found that social media use increased election stress. Of those who use social media, 54 percent report being stressed by the campaigns, while of those abstaining from such online chatter, only 45 percent are concerned about the political strife.
Age is also a factor. “Adults” (people age 71 and older) and “Millennials” (aged 19 to 37) are the most likely to say they were stressed.
Social media use clearly increases political anxiety, Lynn Bufka, APA’s associate executive director for practice research and policy, told Ars. About 38 percent of those surveyed said they were stressed by the political and cultural discussions on social media, which easily become hyperpartisan and rude.
The breakdown by age was more difficult to explain and “surprising,” she added — at least to the older audience. The finding that millennials are stressed out by the election makes sense because they tend to be heavy users of social media, and they’re just young. They have not yet built up mental protection against stress.
“And this is why [the data] is especially surprising with the ‘Matures’,” said Bufka. “As we get older, we learn how to deal with things… for the grown people, they have seen a lot in their lives,” she explained, such as job changes, death of loved ones, serious health problems and financial problems. , not to mention the political turbulence. “They know what the big things are and what the big things aren’t,” she said. They are usually the least mobile.
While the data doesn’t give a definitive explanation as to why this election upset them, Bufka has some theories. She speculates that the tone of the campaigns may appear more offensive or disturbing to an older audience. “Adults” can also be stressed about the future of their children and grandchildren. Finally, neither candidate has emphasized issues important to the elderly – and it’s worth noting that turnout is often high.
While the breakdown of the stress data offers some insights, the bigger picture of political stress is unclear. The APA has measured American stress levels annually for a decade, noting that the economy, work, and money tend to be the top stressors for Americans. But this is the first time the APA has asked specifically about election-induced stress. According to the figures, the election penetrated the main stressors, in addition to the economy, work and money. But it is impossible to judge from the previous polls whether these historic elections are historically stressful.
One fact that might bolster the argument that this presidential election is extremely stressful is that it’s between the two most unpopular major party candidates in more than 30 years of polling. In a recent survey of registered voters, the candidates came in with the highest unfavorable ratings of all time: Hillary Clinton at 59 percent and Donald Trump at 60 percent. (Third was George HW Bush’s popularity in July 1992 when he lost his re-election bid.) A recent Pew Poll found that the majority of voters are “disgusted” and “frustrated” with this election.
On the other hand, scientists and the media have often noted political tensions in the past. In 2004, the Washington Post reported that the country was in the grip of PEAD (Pre-Election Anxiety Disorder) during the fight between George W. Bush and John Kerry. And researchers have since noted that only political participation can increase stress levels. In a 2011 study, scientists reported that on election days, voters’ cortisol (a proxy for stress responses) rises up to five times their normal level. And just going to the polls can be stressful too, as another study found that voting at home can keep cortisol levels more stable.
But even after an election is over, our mental suffering may not be. In 2008, researchers found that John McCain supporters had higher cortisol levels after the election results were announced, while Barack Obama supporters had stable levels.
Historic stress levels or not, the impact of this election on our mental health is not good. Prolonged stress can lead to mood disorders and stomach problems, plus it dampens the immune system, potentially leading to infections and long-term health problems. To ease election stress as we enter the final stretch and debate on Wednesday, the APA recommends that voters:
- Unplug the 24-hour news cycle; read just enough to stay up to date, then turn off the newsfeed or take a digital break. Take some time for yourself, go for a walk or spend time with friends and family doing things that you enjoy.
- Avoid discussions about the elections if you think they could escalate into conflict. Be aware of the frequency with which you discuss the election with friends, relatives or colleagues.
- Channel your concerns to make a positive difference to issues you care about. Consider volunteering in your community, advocating for an issue you support, or joining a local group.
- Remember, life goes on after November 8. Our political system and three branches of government mean that we can expect a significant degree of stability immediately after a major change of government. Avoid catastrophizing and maintain a balanced perspective.
- To vote. By voting, you will hopefully feel like you are taking a proactive step and participating in what has been a stressful election cycle for many.