By Leah Harris

New Study Cites High Levels of Political Anxiety in America: Tips for How to Cope

Civic engagement is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. Once upon a time, the cost of political engagement was mostly measured in terms of the time it took to educate oneself about issues, to register to vote, or to get to the polls. However, in the age of Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle, there can be considerable emotional costs associated with political engagement. According to a study published this week on PlosOne

“Damaged friendships, ruined family reunions, and disrupted workplaces, not to mention feelings of guilt, regret, frustration, anguish, and remorse, have all been attributed to political differences. These sorts of psychological stressors are suspected to underlie a range of health problems believed to accompany divisive electoral campaigns, especially when vulnerable populations perceive themselves as targeted.”

The study is the first of its kind to develop a series of survey instruments capable of measuring the extent to which the political climate is exerting stress on the population. Researchers conducted an online survey of 800 people from a nationally representative sample, and asked participants a series of questions relating to how engaged they are in politics and the impact such engagement is having on their lives, health and well-being.

Lead research Kevin Smith told NPR that while he was not surprised by the survey’s findings, he was shocked by the “sheer numbers” of people who reported being stressed by the current state of politics. Nearly 40% of respondents said that politics was a cause of stress in their lives. About 20% reported losing sleep, feeling fatigued or being depressed owing to politics. 

Between 10% and 30% of the respondents said that politics took an emotional toll on them, by causing “anger, frustration, hate or guilt,” or caused them to say things they regretted later.

The findings of the 2019 study are in alignment with those from a survey conducted in 2017 by the American Psychological Association (APA), which found that 57% of respondents said they were stressed by the current political climate, and sixty percent said they thought that the country was at its lowest point in history.

Since there is widespread agreement that opting out of civic engagement is not beneficial to our democracy, what strategies can help us to be able to politically engage while caring for our mental, physical, and relational health? There is no one size that fits all, but here are some options:

  • Get intentional about your physical health. Try to get enough sleep, eat well, and move your body if that is accessible to you.
  • Spend time in nature. Research indicates that even sitting in a city park for twenty minutes a day can lower stress hormone levels.
  • Limit your access to the 24-hour news cycle and social media. Try turning off all alerts and notifications for a while. If you really can’t tear yourself away from the news, there are apps that block you from accessing the Internet. 
  • Build fun activities into your life. Make sure to schedule time with friends and loved ones, where talk of politics is off-limits. Watch an old comedy series you haven’t tuned into in years. Channel your frustrations into a creative outlet like poetry or mural-making.
  • Do what you can, when you can. It can be immobilizing to consider all the problems in the world right now. Pick one local cause you can have an impact on and get involved how you can!
  • Reach out for help if you need it. Sometimes the anxiety is too much to bear on our own, and it’s hard to see a way out. Find a trusted peer, friend, or counselor to provide some extra support as needed. 

For further exploration: