A Nation Divided: U.S. Politics Taking Physical, Emotional Toll On Americans

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  • Survey reveals about two in five Americans are stressed out by the political climate, and one in five say they’re even losing sleep.
  • Nearly a third of those surveyed feel views expressed on cable news channels are driving them “crazy.”
  • Study author believes problem is akin to a public health crisis in the country.

LINCOLN, Neb. — The past few years in American politics have been tumultuous, to say the least. Personal political beliefs aside, there is no denying that the U.S. has grown especially divided in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory. Between social media bots, partisan news coverage, and the president’s frequent Twitter posts, it has never been harder for the average American to avoid being bombarded with some type of political message on an almost hourly basis.

It isn’t a stretch to assume that at some point all of that polarization would have a negative effect on the collective well being of the nation, and a new study conducted at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has effectively confirmed this assumption. According to researchers, the current U.S. political climate is literally making Americans physically sick, damaging friendships, and driving many people “crazy.”

In March of 2017 researchers surveyed 800 Americans, selected from a pool of 1.8 million in order to create representative samples of the U.S. population. Almost 40% admitted that politics is stressing them out, and one in five even said they are losing sleep over U.S. politics.

“It became apparent, especially during the 2016 electoral season, that this was a polarized nation, and it was getting even more politically polarized,” comments study leader and political scientist Kevin Smith in a release. “The cost of that polarization to individuals had not fully been accounted for by social scientists or, indeed, health researchers.”

Smith even described the study’s findings as akin to a public health crisis.

This study is among the first to comprehensively examine the physical and emotional cost of participating in the current U.S. political system and subsequent discourse. Of course, there have been other studies conducted on U.S. politics, but those focused primarily on economic or monetary costs.

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“Quite a few of the numbers jumped out at me,” Smith elaborates. “Twenty percent have damaged friendships because of political disagreements. One in five report fatigue. And it’s a small (proportion), but 4% of the people in our sample said they’ve had suicidal thoughts because of politics. That translates into 10 million adults.”

Each of the 800 survey respondents were asked to answer a total of 32 questions, across four categories: physical health, regretted behavior, social or lifestyle costs, and mental health. The questions were designed to gauge just how much respondents believed politics were to blame for their problems.

In all, 11.5% said that politics had adversely impacted their physical health, while 31.8% said that being exposed to news channels whose views they disagree with was driving them “crazy.” A significant portion (29.3%) even said they had lost their temper due to politics.

It seems friendships aren’t safe either, with one in five respondents admitting that opposing political views had hurt at least one of their friendships. Another 22.1% said they “care too much” about who wins and loses elections.

“Politics is really negatively affecting a lot of people’s lives, or at least, they’re perceiving that politics is really negatively affecting their lives in deep and meaningful ways,” Smith says. “Stress is a real phenomenon that can have disastrous health effects. If politics is a significant contributor to the levels of stress that American adults are experiencing, then yeah, it makes sense that there’s a real add-on health effect from that. If we understand what’s causing it, that can lead us to ameliorative strategies.”

It’s worth noting that respondents who identified themselves as more liberal than conservative displayed higher stress levels. Smith believes this is likely due to Donald Trump’s current term as president.

“One of the things that we’re really interested in is: What happens if a very left-leaning person is elected into the White House?” Smith speculates. “Do the symptoms stay the same but shift across the ideological spectrum?”

The research team plan to re-use this study’s survey in the future for additional research on the topic of politics and well being.

The study is published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

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