- The American Psychological Association released its 13th annual Stress in America report.
- The report revealed that politics, as well as issues such as healthcare and mass shootings, are taking a psychological toll on people across society nationwide.
- Stress often leads to physical and emotional symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches, and feeling nervous or anxious.
- Experts say that while these common health symptoms might seem minor, they can lead to negative effects on daily life and overall physical health when they continue over a long period of time.
The 2020 U.S. presidential election may still be months away, but according to the American Psychological Association (APA), it’s already causing significant stress among the majority of Americans.
In fact, this upcoming election season is causing more stress than the 2016 election.
These findings come from the APA’s 13th annual Stress in America report. It revealed that politics, as well as issues such as healthcare and mass shootings, are taking a psychological toll on people across society nationwide.
The report used data from a survey conducted by the Harris Poll.
From Aug. 1 to Sept. 3, the online poll surveyed 3,617 U.S. adults who were 18 or older about how they were responding to these often divisive hot-button issues.
The results? More than half — 56 percent — said the impending 2020 election was a major stressor, which is up from 52 percent who found the last presidential race a key source of stress.
Around 62 percent said the political climate as a whole was a cause of stress, while 69 percent cited healthcare and 71 percent referred to mass shootings. This is a big leap from 62 percent last year.
Beyond this, the threat of climate change is a growing stressor among American adults, which is at 56 percent this year compared to 51 percent last year.
Forty-five percent also cited sexual harassment as a source of stress, which is up from 39 percent in 2018.
Immigration was a stressor for 48 percent of adults, affecting Hispanic adults the most at 66 percent. About 52 percent of Asian adults, 48 percent of Native American adults, 46 percent of black adults, and 43 percent of white adults also highlighted immigration as a source of stress.
What was most surprising about these findings for the APA?
Arthur C. Evans Jr., PhD, APA’s chief executive officer, said it was the jump in people who cited mass shootings as a stressor that stood out to him first because that number was higher than the one for “common personal stressors like work or money.”
However, he said it was the number of people who said they were already feeling a great deal of stress about the 2020 presidential election that stood out to him most.
“Even though we are a year out from the 2020 presidential election, already more than half of U.S. adults identify [it] as a significant stressor,” Evans told Healthline. “Alongside the stress people are experiencing about current events, we hear and see uncivil discourse daily.”
“We’re experiencing an unhealthy, vicious cycle of political discourse in our country that has the potential to take a toll on people’s relationships and health,” he added.
The idea that the charged nature of American politics is a focal point of the public’s collective anxiety is nothing new.
That being said, in recent years this sense of politics as the fulcrum around which American stress pivots has heightened.
Last year, a report found that the 2016 election was an experience that generated some symptoms typical of post-traumatic stress disorder among college students.
Amanda Spray, PhD, clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, told Healthline that the results of the new APA report somewhat “validated” her own experience as a practitioner of therapy for veterans as well as civilians in her private practice.
She said the results are reflective of what she’s observed firsthand since the 2016 election season.
“I think so many of these issues impacting our society right now affect people differently,” said Spray, who wasn’t affiliated with the APA report. “Presidential politics have been particularly triggering for individuals with trauma history, for instance. I see that in the female veterans I work with who experienced military sexual trauma. Watching the news can no longer be ‘safe,’ when what is going on with our president, some of the comments being made, can be very triggering for those individuals.”
She added that one thing that might be particularly disorienting for some American citizens is the sense that recent strides in “equality across the board” — including gender, LGBTQ, and racial equality — can feel as if they’re being threatened.
“Those people paying attention to those changes have been disappointed in recent years, and it has led to feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, anxiety, and depression,” Spray explained. “There’s this sense of ‘what can me as one person do in the face of a political administration that has been really challenging to my mental health?’ I see this in my patients overall.”
Spray again contextualized that this could be a product of the subset of New York-based patients she encounters, but when placed against the trends shown by the APA survey, she said she believes these are sentiments pervasive in people nationwide.
Evans added that even if one isn’t being directly affected by one of these issues, they can still cause stress.
“We don’t have to experience a mass shooting directly for it to affect us, for example. Simply hearing about a shooting can lead to an emotional impact, and this can have negative repercussions for our mental and physical health,” he said. “The more these events happen in places where people can see themselves frequenting, the greater the mental health impact will be.”
Evans said that the “rapid-fire nature of news and events” coupled with the “hostile conversations taking place on social media” and “general barrage of news coverage” can lead to “tension in the air.”
Just exactly what kind of role can technology play in fueling mass-American stress?
He said the survey found many people — particularly 60 percent of Gen Z adults and millennials — said they want to stay informed, but that the news causes them stress.
“If issues like immigration, healthcare and mass shootings, or even the presidential campaigns, cause you stress, it’s important to remember you can give yourself permission to take a break from the news and social media chatter,” Evans said. “That can include putting boundaries about how much, when, and what type of news you consume.”
But that can be easier said than done when the latest presidential tweet or headline about a mass shooting is just one push notification away.
“You might see what just happened 5 minutes ago on Twitter, click, and go down the rabbit hole of articles and news of what’s going on,” he added. “It can be challenging for someone trying to avoid the issues.”
Spray said she never recommends avoiding issues in the news that could be triggering.
“I’m a cognitive behavioral therapist and I strongly believe that exposure to what is anxiety-provoking to you is much better than trying to avoid things that make you anxious,” she said. “Potentially having to confront the thing that makes us anxious might move us to action. It might make us feel better.”
Evans added that many people in the country don’t know how to cope with all of this stress. He echoed Spray’s comments, saying that there are things people can do to “strengthen resilience.”
These can include:
- Talk about what’s going on. Ask for support from others who care about you and will listen to your concerns.
- Take quick breaks from the news. Sometimes, images of events like shootings can reawaken feelings of distress. Evans said it’s helpful to “take care of yourself” by engaging in healthy behaviors to “cope with excessive stress.” This involves eating well, getting enough hours of sleep, spending time with friends and family, and finding time to exercise.
- Help others, or do something that makes you feel productive.
“If you’re feeling particularly upset about what is going on [at] the border, for instance, you could potentially donate to causes to help children at the border, donate to services locally,” Spray said. She noted these actions can have a tremendous positive mental health impact.
“Whatever your area of interest is or [any] specialty training [you might have], you’ll be surprised how valuable donating those skills might be to a cause you feel strongly about,” she said.
She also pointed out that the simple act of voting can also be a remedy for the political stress a person is feeling.
“Channeling whatever outrage you’re feeling in voting and having your voice out there in the polls can be helpful with those feelings,” Spray said.
In the APA report, the current political climate affected some groups more than others.
It spotlighted how some groups who feel more vulnerable in our current society often respond the most acutely to the stressors in the political environment.
For instance, the survey revealed Hispanic adults — a high 84 percent — were more likely to declare mass shootings a source of stress. This was followed by 79 percent of black adults, 77 percent of Asian adults, and 71 percent of Native American adults.
By comparison, 66 percent of white adults said shootings were a key stressor.
Additionally, discrimination itself was a big issue, with 25 percent of Americans at large reporting stress over the umbrella of discrimination in general.
More specifically, 63 percent of people of color reported that discrimination prevented them from having a full and productive life, with 64 percent of LGBTQ adults reporting the same.
Spray pointed out that becoming involved in our own communities can help relieve these types of stress and become a source of strength for many people.
“That can be very powerful, to be coming together as one community, whether through religious organizations or social justice organizations,” she said.
When it comes to whether the idea of stress and stress management is discussed enough in our society, Evans said that we need to focus on “recognizing the link between the mind and body.”
“We need to address health holistically, looking at both physical and emotional or behavioral health,” he said of how the nation at large should tackle this topic.
“Stress often leads to physical and emotional symptoms, such as headaches or stomach aches, and feeling nervous or anxious. While these common health symptoms might seem minor, they can lead to negative effects on daily life and overall physical health when they continue over a long period of time,” he said.
The new Stress in America survey from the APA found that more than half of U.S. adults — 56 percent — cite the impending 2020 presidential election as a major stressor a full year before it even takes place.
The election-driven political climate was one of many big, overarching issues looming over American culture that generates a high amount of stress, according to the report.
These issues include climate change, immigration, mass shootings, and discrimination, among others.
Experts advise the best way to deal with such stress is to take a break from the daily news, get a healthy amount of sleep each night, eat well, and exercise.
Experts also say stress relief can come in the form of building communities or joining organizations that might directly address some of the issues causing your stress.