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The Relationship Between Politics and Mental Health

Women having a mental health breakdown among a crowd of people due to political influence

It’s not just in your head, politics can have a measurable impact on your mental health. Although research in this area is relatively new, scientists are finding tangible links between mental health and exposure to politics.

How Politics Influence Mental Health

Politics can cause anxiety, stress, fear, and anger. None of these mental states are healthy.

A study led by psychological scientist Brett Q. Ford surveyed hundreds of Americans and asked people to report the emotions they felt in connection with the political events of the day. People who were the most triggered by political events experienced worse mental and physical health.

Research in this area is still developing, but these effects could be due to a number of factors.

The 24-hour news cycle and the advent of the internet makes it difficult to escape political rhetoric. In the 1950s, people might read a newspaper in the morning and forget about politics for the rest of the day. Today, the news is constantly available, walking around with people in their phones, at home on the television, and even on screens in restaurants and doctor’s offices.

And the news is usually bad. News networks are in the business of keeping people engaged. Fearful or shocking stories are understood to ensure high ratings.

Increasingly biased news coverage means that Democrats and Republicans access very different information on the topic of the day. This makes it harder for them to communicate with one another and can lead to a breakdown in relationships.

The political climate has also become increasingly polarized. Politicians in both parties frequently use fear, anger, and half-truths to rally their supporters and win new ones.

Stress from the COVID-19 pandemic, increased unemployment, and inflation means political decisions have higher stakes than ever.

Politics can also exacerbate underlying mental health issues. If you are already prone to anxiety or depression, negative political messages can add to your emotional and mental load.

The Effects of Politics on Mental Health

Scientists have discovered that politics can impact mental health in a number of ways.

A study conducted in 2019 led by political scientist Kevin Smith found that 40% of those surveyed said politics caused them stress. Roughly 20% said they lost sleep, felt fatigued or were depressed due to political news.

Political affairs can affect people’s social circles. In Smith’s survey, 20% of participants reported that politics had affected their friendships and family relationships.

Not everyone in Smith’s study was impacted in the same way. He and his team found that younger people, the unemployed, liberals, and politically active individuals were more likely to be influenced negatively by political events.

Another study published in 2021 found that increased exposure to political advertisements was associated with a higher likelihood of being diagnosed with anxiety or depression by a professional.

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Mitigating the Negative Effects of Politics on Mental Health

Although following politics can be very stressful in today’s world, many see it as a necessity. In a democracy, it’s important to keep tabs on current events.

The survey conducted by Ford also attempted to determine which strategies helped to improve people’s moods. Ford and her team found that distractions like watching cat videos or reading a book instead of spending time on social media helped some people feel better.

But the best strategy, according to Ford’s study, was something called cognitive reappraisal, which essentially means looking at the situation more objectively. This could include focusing on more immediate issues (what to have for dinner), or re-framing something in a more positive way (believing an event will lead to beneficial change).

However, news organizations and governments also have a part to play. If news organizations were to shift away from more emotional reporting and back to a more traditional, objective style, it could help to tone down the fear and anger that watching the news often inspires.

Governments could also make change by introducing ground rules for more polite, less emotionally charged discourse in Congress and beyond.

Promoting Positive Mental Health Through Politics

Although making decisions about the future of a country is never easy, a more positive politics could actually be good for people’s mental health.

Imagine a world in which politicians collaborated more than they fought, where the issues (not the party) were the most important considerations. Imagine turning on the television and watching good news about how our leaders overcame a problem together. You might actually be in a positive frame of mind after turning off the program.

Some news outlets are beginning to try a more positive approach. CBS News is streaming a program called “The Uplift” which posts positive news stories every week. There is also Positive News, an online and print publication focused on upbeat stories.

Although Congress is often very divided, there are some examples of people from both political parties coming together to make change. For example, in 2022 Republicans and Democrats both supported legislation to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace.

The Takeaway

People may joke about politics being depressing, but the mental health effects of politics are real.

Having access to an often biased and fear-based news cycle 24 hours a day makes it difficult to escape the constant stream of bad news.

An increasingly polarized political landscape means political discussions among friends and family can be fraught and may even damage relationships.

Techniques like distraction and cognitive reappraisal can help people return to a happier frame of mind. And tuning into more positive news sources may also be helpful.

A 2019 PEW Research survey showed that Americans are increasingly upset by all the negativity in politics. Encouraging politicians to adopt a more constructive approach could help change the political landscape for the better.


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