As the results of the midterm election are about to be revealed, here’s how the last general election affected people.
Head to any social networking site — from Twitter to Facebook — or turn on the news and you’ll notice that we’re currently living in very contentious political times.
With the U.S. midterm elections coming up on Tuesday, it’s pretty difficult to avoid political discussions, particularly highly charged ones.
It can be stressful to jump into the political fray, but exactly what kind of impact can the current climate have on people psychologically?
One study recently published in the Journal of American College Health found that the 2016 presidential election was reported to be an especially traumatic experience by some college students, resulting in some symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Lead study author Melissa Hagan, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, and her team surveyed 769 students enrolled in psychology classes at Arizona State University in January and February 2017, just months following the election.
The students answered questions in a psychological assessment known as the Impact of Event Scale. The scale is used to measure how an event might impact a person, leading them to develop PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The study found that 25 percent of the students crossed the threshold that would show “clinically significant” levels of stress, with the average score measuring up to those of people seven months after witnessing a mass shooting.
The team also found that black and nonwhite Hispanic students had higher scores than their white classmates. Female students scored 45 percent higher than their male peers. Democrats scored about two and a half times higher than Republicans, following the election of President Donald Trump.
“I think it’s notable that the election had a negative impact on close relationships in almost 25 percent of students. I can’t speak to other elections and I can’t speak to the student’s internal or interpersonal experiences around the election,” Hagan wrote in an email to Healthline.
“I believe that if an election of any kind represents for some people a threat to their way of life then it could have a significant negative impact on their psychological functioning potentially.”
David Austern, PsyD, an instructor in clinical psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, is skeptical of these kinds of studies. He said that something like a political event “can’t lead to full-blown PTSD.”
Austern told Healthline that tests measuring PTSD are specifically designed to measure violent events such as war conflicts or car accidents. He said that, while an election can cause anxiety, it doesn’t necessarily “threaten life or limb.”
“This kind of event could never lead to PTSD itself. I think it’s more nuanced. And I’m not saying that the last election didn’t cause stress, but I want to caution that it didn’t necessarily cause PTSD,” Austern added.
That being said, Austern agreed that contentious, fraught election seasons can cause severe anxiety in people, especially if they have perceptions that a particular outcome could negatively impact their lives or their families.
“Anxiety that becomes chronic can be debilitating for people. They might worry what could happen in the future,” Austern said. “If one person is elected over another, someone might worry about what impact that might have on their family or their lives. It could lead to thoughts of hopelessness. If someone thinks ‘Wow, now we’re completely screwed, things are going to go downhill for my family and my relationships,’ that person could start to feel sad and hopeless.”
Emanuel Maidenberg, PhD, a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, agreed that we’re in a particularly stressful political environment right now.
He said that, since 2016, some people very well could acutely perceive that what happens from political events going forward could directly impact them.
“Some people’s reactions to modern political events could very well feel like ‘I’m under some threat in some kind of way, I have to protect myself,'” he told Healthline. “Stressors of any kind can activate people’s various vulnerabilities tied to these kinds of perceived threats.”
While he agrees with Austern that an election might not lead to PTSD itself, he does believe that an election outcome could “activate vulnerabilities you already had.”
“Political events could become a stressor that may lead to people recalling experiences that may have happened to me in the past, or activate vulnerabilities,” Maidenberg said.
Last year, the American Psychological Association revealed in its “Stress in America” report that about 63 percent of people in the United States said that the future of the nation is a “very or somewhat significant” source of stress.
This year’s report centered on so-called “Generation Z” specifically. The report — released October 30 — looked at people between ages 15 and 21. They said that for 75 percent of these young people, mass shootings are a significant source of stress.
That being said, stress might not necessarily lead to political activity. Just 54 percent of those who are voting age in the survey, those ages 18 to 21, reported they intend to vote in the U.S. midterm elections.
If you’re prone to feeling stressed from the politics of the day, technology certainly proves a problem. Cable news channels that run 24/7 and social media updates have made politics ubiquitous in our daily lives.
“We all have to take more responsibility, and if you need to give yourself a break from politics, that certainly might be more difficult now than it was in the past because of technology,” Maidenberg added.
“We now have to make more efforts to change viewing habits, like not watching TV more than once a day, for instance, or limiting your exposure to phone access to specific hours during the day. That’s true with anything that might be a stressor.”
Austern cautioned that if you’re particularly stressed by political discussions and consuming politics is a key part of your life or identity, he doesn’t suggest “avoidance,” or cutting it out from your life completely.
He said that while avoidance might feel good in the short term, in the longer term it tends to maintain and keep your anxiety temporarily at bay. There are, however, some helpful skills you can practice to make you feel more comfortable.
He said there are helpful relaxation skills like diaphragmatic breathing, which is slow deep breathing that could help reduce that panicky feeling you might have if something you hear politically particularly upsets you.
Progressive muscle relaxation, which involves easing and removing tension in your muscles, is another way to ease anxiety. He also said that guided imagery, or the use of certain music or words to activate positive, imaginary scenarios in your mind, could help keep your thoughts from straying to the current political environment.
“Beyond relaxation skills, if you feel a sense of a perceived threat, either from the last election or the midterms, I would encourage people to ask themselves what they’re most concerned about and use their thinking skills to address that,” he said.
“Try to calculate the real odds of danger and threats that you perceive are facing you. The brain often predicts that something will go wrong much more than it will actually come to pass. Look at past data, look at what has happened from past events.”
Sometimes turning away from politics and to people you know can help, said Hagan, the author of the new report.
“To cope with any kind of stress it is often helpful to reach out to supportive friends and family and to do things that you enjoy,” she added.
A recent study found that college students reported experiencing some symptoms associated with PTSD after the 2016 election.
Some mental health experts are skeptical that a single election can result in a full-blown case of PTSD, but pointed out that the stress associated with election results is very real.