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Sharp Health News

How stress over politics affects your health

Jan. 19, 2017

How stress over politics affects your health

Many Americans start off each new year with hopes for improved health and well-being. However, meeting those goals may be more challenging this year after living through the 2016 election and with no end to intense political discourse in sight.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), more than half of us report that the 2016 election was a significant source of stress.

Dr. Gary Levinson, a board-certified internal medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, says that stress affects our physical health in many ways.

He cautions that stress can lead to the following:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Worsening diabetic control — the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol raise blood sugar
  • Increased risk of heart attack, strokes and arrhythmias
  • Increased abdominal pain, spasm and irritable bowel flare-ups
  • Heartburn and peptic ulcers

Stress can also affect our mental health. Dr. Christina Huang, a licensed clinical health psychologist with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, says that people coping with a prolonged state of stress often isolate socially and can suffer from insomnia or sleeping more than usual and issues related to food, including under- and over-eating.

Just what about this recent election, though, affected Americans more than past elections?

“This election was very contentious,” says Dr. Levinson. “People were very polarized and took matters personally. Also, the excessive media coverage, the immediacy of social media platforms and the prevalence of ‘always on’ news from smartphones and other personal devices created 24-hour exposure to politics.”

Dr. Huang agrees, saying that there were many aspects of the election that were different than past elections.

“The candidates were very atypical in that both were trying to do something unprecedented — one was trying to be the first female president and another was the first non-politician who already had a great deal of fame from his businesses and reality television,” she says. “The natural consequence was that these two people attracted a lot of attention and, with that, a lot of media coverage and conversation.”

The APA reports that much of the stress related to politics is, in fact, due to the prevalence of social media. Close to 4 in every 10 adults report that political discussions on social media cause them stress. Adults who use social media are also more likely than those who do not to blame significant stress on the election and politics, in general.

Dr. Huang finds that certain of us are more negatively affected by political stress.

“Those who have mental health concerns are more at risk for stress over things like an election,” she says. “Also, people who are socially isolated and those who are more likely to engage in certain distorted types of thinking, such as catastrophizing and ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking, are more susceptible to this type of stress.”

According to Dr. Huang, she and colleagues also noted an increase in the amount of primal fear evident in the average voter’s mind during this most recent election.

“The increasing chaos in the world, acts of terrorism, racial and gender identity tensions, tensions regarding language and political correctness paired with financial concerns are just some factors that have contributed to the average American becoming more stressed than ever before,” she says.

While the results of the election may have increased stress for some and relieved stress for others, there are steps that we can all take to care for ourselves and those around us in this new year. Dr. Huang encourages us to actively balance our lifestyle and perspective. It’s also important to remember that whatever you are feeling, it’s likely that there is someone else who feels the same way, so keeping up a support system is essential.

“As human beings, we are social creatures and social isolation is very highly correlated with depression and vulnerability to stress,” she says.

The APA offers these other tips:

  • Limit your media consumption and read or watch just enough political news to stay informed.
  • Take time for yourself and spend time doing things you enjoy with friends and family.
  • Avoid discussions about politics that are likely to escalate.
  • Channel concerns you may have into actions to make a positive difference on issues important to you.
  • Avoid catastrophizing and maintain a balanced perspective.

“It’s important to keep the big picture in mind,” says Dr. Huang. “Try to balance out your daily activities, take care to include pleasant activities each day and focus on your long-term goals.”

To learn relaxation techniques and stress management skills, consider attending an upcoming Sharp stress management class or seminar. Visit sharp.com/health-classes for more information.

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