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September 27, 2019
by Elizabeth Pratt

Americans are Stressed Out About Politics

September 27, 2019 08:00 by Elizabeth Pratt  [About the Author]

More than 40 years since the Watergate scandal that led to an impeachment process against Richard Nixon, President Donald Trump is facing a formal impeachment inquiry. 

In a chaotic week in Washington, involving a whistle-blower complaint regarding Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president, political news is hard to escape.

Even for those disinterested in politics, social media and a 24-hour news cycle ensure it’s hard to miss the latest political debacle unfolding in the nation’s capital.

Now researchers have determined exposure to politics is having a negative impact on the mental and physical health of Americans.

40 per cent of those surveyed for the research, published in PLOS ONE, say politics is stressing them, with one in five reporting they were losing sleep due to politics.

It’s a trend Kevin Smith, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, wanted to further explore 

“Part of it was simply the unusually divisive and polarized political environment in the wake of the 2016 elections with news stories reporting on things like therapists talking about ‘election stress disorder’, and partly because of other bits and pieces coming out in surveys, for example, one poll found a majority of Americans identified politics as a source of stress, another poll found government and politics topped the list of things Americans were afraid about,” he told Theravive. 

“A combination of these sorts of things led us to talk about whether anyone had ever seriously tried to comprehensively capture the costs people perceive political engagement takes on their social, psychological, emotion and even physical health. Near as we could tell, no one had, so we thought that’s exactly what we’d do.” 

Previous studies that looked at the cost of following or participating in political discourse in the United States had mainly focused on the financial aspect: the cost of supporting a campaign, or time lost from work to go and vote. 

Smith focused instead on the health impacts of being engaged in, or observing politics in the United States. He says what he found could be likened to a public health crisis. 

One in five surveyed report fatigue, 20 per cent say they have damaged friendships over politics, nearly 32 per cent say media exposure to political views contrary to their own drove them crazy, 11.5 per cent say politics had negatively impacted their health in some way and four per cent reported they had experienced suicidal thoughts due to politics.   

“The simple takeaway: large numbers of Americans – tens of millions if our numbers are even half-way accurate – perceive politics as taking a significant toll on their social, emotional, psychological and even physical health,” Smith said. 

Data for the study was collected by YouGov over a period of five days in 2017, with 800 people responding to the survey. YouGov works by using a panel of just under 2 million people to create samples that are representative of the total population of the US. The survey had 32 questions split in to the four categories of mental health, physical health, social and lifestyle costs and regretted behaviour. The survey focused on how people perceived politics as being the cause of any issues they were experiencing at that time.

Stress from politics was found to be greater on one side of the political spectrum than the other.

“We find that people on the political left are more likely to report bearing these costs. What we don’t know is whether people on the political right would report similar costs if left-leaning politicians were in power, or whether this is simply the product of a particularly controversial election that left nerves raw among certain groups,” Smith said. 

The negative health impacts of stress both physically and mentally are well established, and Smith argues the full impact of political discourse on health is not yet fully understood. 

“Political engagement exacts costs that have not been fully recognized, studied or thought through! I’m loath to say don’t be politically interested or engaged —democracy depends on civic engagement after al l—but the people who are less likely to report these costs are the politically disengaged,” he said. 

About the Author

Elizabeth Pratt

Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald,, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.

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