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Political headlines have been ruthless lately. Calls for impeachment of the President. Debate on health, immigration and gun control.
Discussions on these issues can quickly heat up and be toxic. They can affect relationships and even your health, according to a study published on Wednesday in by PLOS ONE.
Americans seem to "suffer some pretty negative consequences because of their attention and political involvement," says author Kevin Smith, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, discussing the results of the study.
In the months following the November 2016 election, Smith began to hear anecdotes that people were disturbed by the election results and political divisions in the country. "I think most people have heard or experienced, or at least read, a news story about losing a girlfriend or boyfriend or arguing over a Thanksgiving table," he says.
So he and his colleagues decided to understand exactly how politics affects the mental health of Americans.
The team conducted an online survey of 800 people from a nationally representative sample and asked respondents a number of questions about how involved they are in politics and how it affects their lives, health and well-being.
Nearly 40% of respondents say that politics is the cause of stress in their lives. About 20% report having lost sleep, feeling tired or depressed due to politics.
Between 10% and 30% of those surveyed say that politics has taken an emotional toll on them, causing anger, powerlessness, hatred or guilt or making them comment on which they later regret.
And about 20% report that politics has harmed their friendship. And, Smith says, "16% say politics has made my home life less enjoyable."
Not surprisingly, people are stressed by politics. But "what I felt was kind of an eye was just the sheer number of people who said they had experienced it," he says.
The overall findings of the new study "are consistent with what we observed in our study of Stress in America," says Lynn Buffa, a psychologist and associate executive director of Practice, Research and Policy at the American Psychological Association,
In 2017, the APA's annual survey on levels of stress in Americans found that 57% of those surveyed said they were stressed by the current political climate, while 63% said the nation's future was causing them stress. Sixty percent said they thought the country was the lowest point in history.
And more than half of those surveyed said that although they like to be informed about news and politics, this emphasizes them.
While the APA poll found that respondents from both ends of the political spectrum reported being concerned about the division of politics today, Democrats believe it is more stressful than Republicans or independents, says Buffka.
The Smith study also found that respondents who are more likely to report negative policy outcomes are younger, unemployed, more liberal, more dogmatic, discuss politics more often, and engage in policy with -high speed.
Smith wonders whether the stress of politics is the result of the current presidency, or whether the people who are most stressed by politics are those who are against the party in power at any given moment. "If we could … go back to the Obama era, would we find similar types of numbers, but with Republicans and right-wing people [reporting feeling stressed]?"
The only way to find out, he adds, is to wait for a change in the political environment and make another study.
For now, says Buffka, the new study suggests that political engagement comes at an emotional cost. And that in turn can influence policy.
"It's really important in a democracy that people want to be engaged," she says. "It would be really discouraging if people felt [so] stressed and negatively influenced by the political discourse of the day that … they were giving up politics."
It offers some tips for better managing stress levels so that people stay engaged as citizens.
On the one hand, she says, think carefully about whether and how to engage in political discussion with friends and family.
"Getting into any type of situation expecting to win or persuade someone from your point of view is unlikely to lead to a non-stressful approach," says Buffka.
If you think the discussion will be too "emotional
She recommends that people take care of sleeping and eating well to help their bodies be more resilient to stress.
learn your exposure to stressful contributions and take the time to do things that help you
She suggests you take a break from the news or "choose to just watch the news, read the news, participate in news discussions until a certain point in the evening."
Make sure you keep enough. time for things that set you apart, she says, "whether it's walking in the woods or spending time with friends playing card games or just enjoying each other's company."
These moments of free, enjoyable pursuits are key to buffering against any type of stress, she adds.