Fallout from toxic politics can cause stress, anxiety, and even trauma for individuals and their communities.
Here we take a closer look at these issues, how they are impacting Americans, and what to do about it.
Politics can be a significant source of stress, and not just during a campaign. It can be a chronic problem.
One study conducted in 2022 found many people were affected by ongoing political stress. The researchers found this stress was associated with high blood pressure, lack of sleep, depression, difficulty regulating emotions, and even suicidal ideation.
When people are stressed, they increasingly use what psychologist Steven Stosny terms the “toddler brain” which is very emotional and less logical than the “adult brain.” Inflammatory comments on social media, highly emotional protests, and an inability to talk about the issues calmly can all occur when people are stressed and working from that part of their brains.
Stressed people impact their communities. Many universities have posted articles on political stress and how to cope with it. This is a sign they are affected by this problem in their student population.
In 2021, debates between parents around mask mandates in schools were often very heated, basically degrading to yelling matches. Increased stress due to these politicized decisions could have been a factor.
Politics can also be a source of anxiety.
A study published in 2022 found that moderate to severe anxiety significantly increased during the 2020 American election, even compared with the previous spring when much of society was locked down.
Psychologists and psychiatrists have also reported increased rates of political anxiety in their practices.
In an article for British GQ, writer Erin Paterson detailed her struggle with political anxiety which included panic attacks, vomiting, and self-harm. So many people have struggled with similar issues that there are terms like “political anxiety disorder” floating around mental health circles, though this isn’t a formal diagnosis. Ultimately, Paterson was able to manage her political anxiety by seeing a psychiatrist and using coping techniques like minimizing media exposure.
Political anxiety can impact society as a whole. When people have moderate or severe anxiety, they are more likely to take time off work or school. Since anxiety can also affect personal relationships, groups like families, schools, and workplaces may feel the strain of interpersonal friction too.
According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event.” Trauma can include shock and denial, flashbacks, headaches, and nausea. While political trauma has traditionally been defined as trauma associated with political violence, some people are beginning to relate it to other types of events like the election of former President Donald Trump.
In this Popsugar article written by Esme Mazzeo, psychologist Zamira Castro defined political trauma as “the outcome of traumatic events that have happened at the social level with political consequences and ramifications for certain groups of people based on their group membership.” This definition recognizes that some communities may be impacted more than others by political trauma.
In the article, Mazzeo explained that as a disabled, part Latinx woman, Trump’s election caused her to fear for her safety. Trump was famously disparaging towards women and immigrants from Mexico, and mocked a disabled reporter.
There is evidence showing the groups people identify with are closely related to how they experience trauma. The Muslim community in the United States of America, for example, experienced more worry and anger associated with Trump’s election than the average population in 2017.
Under Castro’s definition, the African American community may have experienced political trauma in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Research shows Black Americans experienced significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety in the week following Floyd’s death, and the event had wider political implications.
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Effects of Political Stress, Anxiety, and Trauma on Communities
When individuals are stressed, anxious, or traumatized, communities are also affected.
Stressed or anxious individuals are more emotionally volatile and don’t communicate as calmly with one another. This can lead to a breakdown in rational dialogue within and between groups.
As dialogue breaks down, the political and social environment can become increasingly polarized and divided.
And these issues don’t impact everyone equally. Political stress, anxiety, and trauma likely affect marginalized and vulnerable communities more than others. All the groups mentioned in the section on political trauma (disabled people, Muslims, and African Americans) are minorities.
But political stress, anxiety, and trauma can also contribute to social change. While George Floyd’s murder saddened and angered many Americans on an individual level, the resulting protests were a catalyst for social change. According to an NBC News article, in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, reform in policing gained momentum, workplaces began implementing anti-racism policies, and many cultural institutions appointed Black leaders.
Coping with Political Stress, Anxiety, and Trauma
There are many coping strategies for these issues ranging from simple techniques that can be practiced at home to seeking professional help.
Licensed social worker Shella Robinson-Kiss advises planning a fun and rewarding activity at least three times per week, and recognizing that conflict is an important part of growth. She also recommends turning off the news as much as possible and focusing on things within your control.
Some research has outlined different types of therapy that may help people heal from political trauma. These include counseling, participating in self-expression like art, or taking part in collective action.
Political leaders could also help by refraining from targeting and blaming specific groups in their messaging, and reducing negative and overly emotional rhetoric. Making mental health support more readily available for Americans, regardless of their income status could also be beneficial.
The negative impacts of politics and political violence do affect people’s mental well-being.
People may experience stress, anxiety, and trauma as a result. These in turn can cause sleep disruption, depression, and even suicidal ideation. People may also experience physical symptoms like high blood pressure, headaches, and nausea.
Solutions can include:
Reducing exposure to the news
Taking time to enjoy life
Reframing political upheaval as an important growth process
Taking political action
Seeking professional help including counseling and/or medication
The most important piece of the puzzle is recognizing how politics contribute to stress, anxiety, and trauma. Only problems that are fully understood can be solved. As author Bessel Van der Kolk wrote, “I wish I could separate trauma from politics, but as long as we continue to live in denial and treat only trauma while ignoring its origins, we are bound to fail.”