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The stress of partisan politics is taking an emotional, physical and social toll on Americans, study finds

Trump rally protest
REUTERS/Tom Brenner
Members of the audience shout at an anti-Trump protestor as President Donald Trump delivers remarks during a Keep America Great rally at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, on September 16.

Not only is politics stressing us out, it’s doing so in ways that are negatively affecting both our physical and mental health.

Almost two in five American adults say that the country’s political situation causes them considerable stress, and about one in five say they have lost sleep or been depressed as a result, a new study reports.

The study also found that one in five Americans claims politics has damaged at least one of their friendships.

These findings, which were published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, are based on a survey taken just months after Donald Trump was elected president. Yet the findings may be equally relevant this week, as political rancor ratchets up in the immediate wake of the House of Representatives officially launching an impeachment inquiry against the president.

“Politics is really negatively affecting a lot of people’s lives, or at least, they’re perceiving that politics is really negatively affecting their lives in deep and meaningful ways,” said Kevin Smith, the study’s lead author and a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in a released statement.

A systematic approach

As Smith and his co-authors point out, their study isn’t the first to identify politics — particularly political events since the 2016 election — as a prominent source of stress for American adults. In a 2017 survey by the American Psychological Association, 57 percent of the Americans polled said politics was a very or somewhat significant source of stress in their lives.

This new study, however, goes further than just asking people if politics is stressing them out. It systematically assesses the physical, psychological and social costs of that stress on people’s lives.

To do that, the researchers developed a new survey questionnaire, modeled after ones used by Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous. It includes 32 questions designed to elicit people’s perceptions of how the country’s political climate is affecting them in four broad categories: physical health, mental health, regretted behavior and social/lifestyle costs.

It also asked people about their political leanings and about how often — and in what ways — they engaged in politics.

The survey was then given in March 2017 to a representative sample of 800 American adults recruited through YouGov.

Key findings

As Smith told National Public Radio reporter Rhitu Chatterjee, the results are rather “eye-popping.” Here are some of those findings:

Effects on physical health:

  • 38 percent of the respondents said politics had caused them stress.
  • 11.5 percent said politics had adversely affected their physical health
  • 18.3 percent said they had lost sleep because of politics
  • 26.4 percent said they had become depressed when a preferred candidate had lost an election
  • 4.1 percent said politics had cause them to become suicidal

Effects on emotional health:

  • 31.8 percent said watching media outlets promoting views contrary to theirs “can drive me crazy”
  • 29.3 percent said they had lost their temper as a result of politics
  • 26.3 percent said politics had led them to hate some people
  • 18 percent said they had regretted comments they had made while discussing politics with others

Regretted behavior:

  • 25.6 percent said they spent more time thinking about politics than they would like
  • 16.8 percent said their lives would be better if they focused less on politics
  • 13.4 percent said they had vowed to spend less time on politics, but had failed to follow through on that pledge
  • 8.5 percent said politics had delayed them from completing an assignment, task or job

Social and lifestyle health:

  • 20.3 percent said differences in political views had damaged a friendship they had valued
  • 16.9 percent said differences in political views had caused problems for them in their extended family
  • 14.6 percent said differences in political views had caused problems for them in their immediate family
  • 8 percent said differences in political views had caused problems for them at work

Some more affected than others

“Even the most conservative interpretation of these numbers suggest that large numbers of Americans are convinced that politics is exacting significant social, psychological and even physical costs on their well-being,” the researchers write.

The findings suggest, they add, that about 94 million American believe politics has caused them stress, 44 million believe it has led them to lose sleep, and 28.5 million believe it has adversely affected their physical health.

Although people from all political persuasions indicated in the survey that their emotional and physical health had been adversely affected by politics, Democrats were more likely to report being stressed out than Republicans or independents, the study found.

Younger people and the unemployed were also more likely to believe politics was negatively affecting their lives, as were those with more dogmatic personalities (no matter where their politics fell on the political spectrum), those who had a harsher view of their political opponents, and those who frequently discussed and participated in politics.

Limitations and implications

This study comes with caveats, of course. Most notably, the questionnaire used in the study was structured in a way that may have resulted in acquiescence bias (the tendency of survey respondents to answer “yes” to survey questions). That factor could have made politics appear to have a bigger effect on people’s lives than is actually the case, Smith and his co-authors point out.

The survey also measured how people were feeling at a single point in time (soon after President Trump was elected) and therefore may not represent the emotional and physical costs of politics on people’s lives at other times.

“One of the things that we’re really interested in is: What happens if a very left-leaning person is elected into the White House?” Smith says. “Do the symptoms stay the same but shift across the ideological spectrum?”

Despite these limitations, however, the study’s findings are intriguing — and potentially important.

“Stress is a real phenomenon that can have disastrous health effects,” says Smith. “If politics is a significant contributor to the levels of stress that American adults are experiencing, then yeah, it makes sense that there’s a real add-on health effect from that.”

“If we understand what’s causing it, that can lead us to ameliorative strategies,” he adds.

FMI: The study can be read in full on the PLOS One website.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 09/27/2019 - 12:01 pm.

    Didn’t agree with much that Obama did as President but didn’t lose a minute of sleep over it. If folks can’t handle other opinions not sure how they get by in daily life. The biggest issue I see in politics of 2019 is folks that have never met you will call you a racist, homophobe, anti immigrant or other slurs just because you disagree with a certain policy. That is very troubling because it shuts down dialogue. We need more dialogue not less.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 09/27/2019 - 03:18 pm.

      Obama wasn’t a racist lawbreaker who stated that he only cares about those that voted for him.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 09/29/2019 - 01:34 pm.

      If you are not open to open dialogue, i.e. your objective is to protect your position, not be open to the truth, facts, etc. or learn the other point of view by using something like “The Socratic method” then there is no dialogue to be had, as the Japaneses say, ishi atama, (rock head), there is no discussion to be had with a rock. One might also consider what is the common ground that is used to form the basis of the dialogue? If the entire US governemnt ~ 2 M employees, other than the executive branch is considered deep state, Where do you go from there?

  2. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 09/27/2019 - 12:14 pm.

    Wonder why Republicans feel less stressed that Democrats. Who do you like feels worse? The bully or the bullied. Trump is the classic bully and up to 90% of Republicans strongly support what he says and done. They like him like to think of themselves above the law, because they think like them need to rule over society as they have over the nation’s history. They entered a perpetual state of rage when Obama became President and the thought of Hillary increased their rage. The only way this ends is if Trump is repudiated in 2020, as impeachment leaves too many angry Republicans in power. As s Democrat, I pray that Republicans think carefully about what four more years of Trump would do to the country

  3. Submitted by Al Andresen on 09/27/2019 - 07:26 pm.

    If you believe that tensions rise high between friends, relatives and especially other people – just wait. We’ve been living through relatively good economic times the past 6 years, especially in the construction industries. When the next economic valley arrives, we will have this fiscal wolves at our doorstep

    1) Federal debt $22+Trillion (was under $8 Trillion in 2008). Federal fiat money has been a major reason economic times got better, but truthfully, how much more debt can the nation take on

    2) Entitlement schemes will begin facing tremendous fiscal pressures in the next few years. Hundreds of trillions in unfunded pension and medical care liabilities are the biggest part of the debt iceberg

    3) State and local taxing entity bonding debt are at all time highs. Again, government is making the huge miscalculation that the upward trend will continue. What will happen when property values sink and people lose their homes because of no job and/or obscenely high property taxes?

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 09/30/2019 - 03:13 pm.

      Hmm…what happened in 2008? Oh Yeah, Republicans crashed the Economy. That debt is the cost of correcting that, well except the last four or five trillion Donald racked up with his Tax cut for the wealthy This year we are on track to add 1.2 trillion and it only goes up from there.

      I guess a person would have to define entitlement. I’ve been paying into Social Security since the 60s and after 1980s when Ronald Reagan doubled what we all pay in, I not only paid for retirees at the time, but I also started paying into a surplus that would pay my own SS benefits. Other generations didn’t have to do that. Of course Ronny dipped into that fund and others kept it up and now they don’t want to pay it back. Some folks like to say that might put financial pressure on the system, but I say I put that money in and I am entitled to take it out. If you have to tax the wealthy beneficiaries of all the Republican tax cuts that were paid for with Social Security trust fund dollars so be it.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 09/27/2019 - 08:52 pm.

    Its a problem when one political side claims that 2+2 ≠4, Everything that makes sense, doesn’t make sense, the good guys are the bad guys the bad guys are the good guys, corruption is good, ethics is bad, fresh air is bad, pollution is good. Win/win is bad, I win you lose is good, Lying is good truth is bad, Bullying is good, compassion is bad, self aggrandizement is good, humility is bad, Where do you go for common ground?

  5. Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/30/2019 - 02:05 pm.

    I have lost some friends and ceased talking to some relatives. And that is fine with me. I have no interest in talking to people who think LGBT people should be stripped of their civil rights. I have no interest in being friends with people who are ok with treating immigrants like animals. I don’t want to be friends with racists.

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