NEWS

No Matter What Party Is in Power, Politics Can Harm Mental Health

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study found that stress levels around politics have not improved despite a change in administration.
  • In fact, the results show that many Americans believe politics take a chronically negative toll on their mental, physical and social health.

It's generally believed that staying politically informed and active is good for both individuals and society. But a survey conducted in both 2017 and 2020 that measured the mental, physical and social impact of politics on American adults suggests otherwise.

The results of the study found that countless individuals consider following politics a significant source of stress, even after a change in administration. This suggests that the real issue might be that, regardless of who's in power, we continue to witness a combination of governmental inaction and endless political drama.

The Research

The 32-question survey conducted in 2020 served as a follow-up to the 2017 study that covered the same topic. The results of the first study found that many American adults blamed politics for high levels of stress, damaged relationships and loss of sleep.

In 2017, after the election of former president Donald Trump, study author Kevin Smith, PhD, wasn't sure whether his findings reflected an unusual time in history. He weighed the potential that people might've been highly sensitive to politics after an incredibly polarizing presidential election. However, he'd come to find out the earlier results weren't an anomaly, as they were mirrored by the 2020 results.

"They are more consistent with the idea that politics is a chronic stressor, something that people see as consistently taking a toll on their social, emotional and even physical health across the long term, not something whose impact spikes during and shortly after campaigns," Smith says.

Kevin Smith, PhD

Politics is a chronic stressor, not something whose impact spikes during and shortly after campaigns.

— Kevin Smith, PhD

The 2020 findings show that about 40% of American adults feel significant stress thanks to politics. And between 50 and 85 million Americans believe politics are to blame for increased fatigue, anger, compulsive behavior and loss of temper. Because of politics, about a quarter of the individuals surveyed have considered moving, and about 5% have had suicidal ideations.

How does this contribute to the current mental health crisis? While Smith prefaces that he's not a clinician, his study raises the question of what's good for our health.

"The fact that so many people are pointing at politics as a chronic source of stress and as exacting a negative toll on their psychological health suggests that politics certainly isn’t supporting mental health and is likely detracting from it," Smith says.

Psychotherapist William Chum, LMHC, wasn't surprised by the study's findings, as they reflect a trend in his own practice in recent years: He's seen a significant increase in patients seeking therapy to cope with politics-related anxiety, depression and traumatic stress.

"Much of the function of our anxious thoughts as human beings are to protect ourselves from threats of harm, whether immediate or in the future, and one way that politics activates stress and anxiety is that we tend to look to politicians to lead our societies in certain directions," Chum says. "When a political candidate or any other significant person holds opposing values, stress is inevitable as our minds try to cope with this conflict."

This could explain why the study found that younger, more liberal individuals experienced more negative health effects as recent political candidates have held more conservative views, Chum says.

Coping with Helplessness

A survey from the American Psychological Association found that two in three Americans consider the future of the nation a significant source of stress. And the political climate was reported as the most stressful factor to respondents.

Watching the never-ending news cycle fans those flames and leaves us feeling fearful, helpless and enraged. While many people hoped a new administration would bring welcome change, we've been left with much of the same, including an inadequate response to a global health crisis, broken promises and failed legislature.

"It makes sense that the 2020 election has not alleviated our worries, because the Trump administration brought to light how broken and fragile our system is and how vulnerable it is to authoritarianism," says psychologist Avigail Lev, PsyD, founder of CBT Online.

Lev offers suggestions for coping with feelings of helplessness like structuring the time you spend consuming news media and limiting time spent on social media. Indeed, research has shown that social media and online discussions heighten stress levels and contribute to political polarization.

Finding support instead from friends and family and practicing self-compassion can be more beneficial. Seeking out a therapist is also always a healthy means of support.

If you consistently feel overwhelmed by politics, educate yourself about the systems in place and how they should work. Smith notes that the survey results showed that people with higher levels of political knowledge were less likely to report some of these negative impacts.

William Chum, LMHC

Much of the function of our anxious thoughts as human beings are to protect ourselves from threats of harm, whether immediate or in the future.

— William Chum, LMHC

It can also be incredibly beneficial, both to you and your community, to get involved locally. This doesn't mean you need to run for office, but could instead look like canvassing for a candidate that shares your values or donating to organizations you support. You can also step up where local government falls short. Donating time and/or resources to local mutual aid groups and grassroots organizations can help you to enact visible change where it really matters.

"Voting, volunteering and finding meaningful ways to get involved are things that are within an individual's control, whereas the results of an election or the actions and decisions of others are not," Chum says. "When the things that are not within their control are activating stress, I recommend first prioritizing self-care and meeting their basic needs of healthy sleeping, eating and exercising."

What This Means For You

Taking care of yourself, seeking support in your community and participating in local government and/or mutual aid groups however possible can help combat the everyday stress brought on by an exhausting political system.

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2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Smith KB. Politics is making us sick: The negative impact of political engagement on public health during the Trump administrationPLoS One. 2022;17(1):e0262022. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0262022

  2. American Psychological Association. Stress in America 2017 snapshot: Coping with change.