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The United States of Anxiety: Experts Weigh in on How to Stay Engaged in Politics Without Burning Out

Among others, Holy Cross faculty members Daniel Klinghard, Tim Bishop '72 and Peter Flaherty '87 chime in
January 9th, 2020 by 

Two people play the game Guess Who where the faces have been switched for Democratic and Republican political figures
A political game of Guess Who. Photo by Avanell Brock

If you thought presidential election seasons were tumultuous in the past, brace yourself for Election 2020.

The 24-hour news cycle, smartphones and ubiquity of social media have caused politics to invade Americans’ lives in ways that have upended their sense of calm and left many constantly on edge.

In a newly published study, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Professor Kevin Smith found that following the 2016 presidential election, 38% of people in a nationally representative sample felt stressed-out by politics, with 26% experiencing depression and 21% a lack of sleep. Nearly 30% reported they lost their temper over the topic and 20% said that political disagreements cost them friendships. About 4% even said it made them consider suicide, a figure representing about 10 million Americans.

“Political interest and engagement is typically viewed as a good thing — a civic virtue,” says Smith, the Leland J. and Dorothy H. Olson Chair of Political Science and department chair. “But we found tens and tens of millions of Americans perceive it as exacting a significant toll on their social, psychological and physical health.”

Nor has that anxiety seemed to abate since the last election — in fact, it’s gotten stronger, according to an annual survey by the American Psychological Association (APA). For more than a decade, the organization’s Stress in America survey has asked Americans what causes them the most stress. In August 2016, it added a question about the upcoming presidential election for the first time, finding that 52% of respondents considered it a significant source of stress in their lives. In 2019, that figure stood at 56%. “That is telling us there is a sustained level of stress in our political climate,” says psychologist Lynn Bufka, APA associate executive director for practice, research and policy.

 A drawing of an ouroboros, a snake that eats its own tail, where one end is a Democratic donkey and the other end is a Republican elephant

An homage to an ouroboros, a snake that eats its own tail, symbolizing the parties continuing interactions; it also represents one’s mind if one is caught in a constant anxiety loop over politics. Illustration by Stephen Albano

While Smith and Bufka found members of both parties stressed-out by politics, their data shows that Democrats seem to be slightly more affected. In addition, both studies found a higher rate of political anxiety in young people. While teens tend to have higher rates of anxiety anyway, their limited political experience may make today’s polarized moment seem particularly extreme. “Those above [age] 35 have lived through different economic and political times and realize we do come through things,” Smith surmises. “When you are young, you don’t have a lot of memories of past times.”

The APA’s study also found increased political stress among women, LGBTQ individuals, and racial and ethnic communities. That corresponds to a rise in stress due to discrimination, Bufka says.

“These individuals may be linking their experience of discrimination and corresponding stress of that to the political situation,” she speculates, though the survey did not ask that question directly.

Whatever the cause, the constant barrage of stress during the day can take its toll on our bodies. “We all start the day with a certain stress bank inside of us,” explains psychologist David Chesire, who studies anxiety and is an associate professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine. As we encounter difficult circumstances — a string of red lights on the way to work, an infuriating Facebook post — we draw on that account. “To deal with stress, you are constantly making a withdrawal of your coping reserve. When it hits zero, you’ve lost the ability to cope.”

Unchecked, chronic stress can put people at risk of a host of health conditions, Bufka notes, not just depression and anxiety, but also cardiovascular issues, high blood pressure, obesity and even cancer: “It puts you at greater risk, just as too much alcohol or eating too much or not exercising puts you at risk.”

Perfect Storm of Outrage

 A drawing of a bald eagle with an

A bald eagle with an “I Voted” sticker. Illustration by Stephen Albano

“The stress level for this election is dramatically more intense than the stress level for the 2016 election,” says Tim Bishop ’72, a former six-term Democratic congressman for New York and current distinguished visiting lecturer at the College’s J.D. Power Center for Liberal Arts in the World.

And while anxiety is high, its existence is not new.

“We’ve certainly gone through periods of polarization before,” notes Daniel Klinghard, Holy Cross professor of political science and director of the J.D. Power Center, pointing to the 1960s, the Great Depression, the Civil War and even the split into parties by the Founding Fathers. “This is a unique kind of polarization, however, in that it’s penetrated into the average person’s life in ways that it didn’t for most people during, say, the Jefferson-Hamilton dispute.”

Feeding the division is a never-ending push of real-time information, news, analysis and opinion, only one click away, thanks to mobile technology and social media. “We are all walking around with access to more information in our pockets than people 200 years ago saw in their lifetimes,” Bufka notes.

“We’ve only lived in this fervor for less than a decade and at a minimum, it’s not helping,” Smith says. “You slap all of that on top of a society that is already grappling with a lot of crosscutting social cleavage, from race to the #MeToo movement, and it’s a perfect storm.”

That storm can develop into a vicious cycle, as many start expecting — and even seeking out — the next outrage. That’s what happened to Klinghard a few years ago. “I realized when I was checking Twitter, I was searching for the day’s big controversy and not really thinking about the news,” he says. “It was anxiety driving cultural check-in.” Since then, he’s begun limiting his social media use. “What I’ve been saying to folks — and it’s a very Jesuit thing — is think about what you are feeling and whether you feel energized or drained by the experience. Am I doing it for information or entertainment?”

Oftentimes, the anxiety people experience can be caused by a feeling of uncertainty and lack of control over the negativity in the political world, psychologists say. In order to regain control, those affected might check out of politics entirely or get so involved they go down rabbit holes of polls, blogs and conspiracy theories. That, in turn, sends people into echo chambers that only make them feel more alienated from the other side.

“It’s no secret we are living in a world right now where we are having a harder time as a culture appreciating different points of view other than our own,” Chesire says. While in past times of stress we may naturally rely on friends, family and coworkers for support, “oftentimes our friends and family and coworkers may have different views than our own,” only exacerbating a sense of isolation, he adds.

Cope and Change

 A drawing of a brain and a heart holding hands

Some lead with their heart, while others lead with their head. Illustration by Stephen Albano

While a desire to disengage from politics entirely can be a natural response, that turtling comes at a price, Bishop says: “As stress-inducing as it is, voters have to put a priority on staying informed because our democracy depends on it — not just on people voting, but on people voting in an informed way.”

There are, of course, tried and true ways people can make deposits in their coping reserve to guard against stress: yoga, meditation, prayer or simply doing something they enjoy. “One of the most important skills we develop when we enter adulthood is our ability to relax,” Chesire says.

Coupled with those techniques is the key decision to reduce the constant flow of information, either by creating a “technology-free zone,” such as the bedroom or dinner table — where checking the phone is off-limits — or by setting certain times of the day when social media is ignored.

“You don’t want to disengage altogether, but we can choose where and when to engage,” Bufka says. “You can say, ‘I don’t check news after 9 p.m.’ or ‘I don’t check news in the morning before I have my coffee and go for a run.’” Klinghard decided that he would check news while getting dressed, but not while eating breakfast, and would listen to the radio on the way to work, but not on the way home.

“We can’t trust this sense that more digging is going to get us more truth,” he says. “Limiting ourselves to fewer sources would probably make us happier.” For himself, he switched from Twitter to Reddit to get his news, which allows him to curate his news feed with more control and follow communities of special interest. In addition, he subscribes to the Washington Post and respected publications on both sides of the spectrum — Slate and the National Review — to keep up with the news of the day.

People can also restore a sense of control over their lives by unplugging and finding positive ways to take action, says Bufka, whether it’s campaigning for a chosen candidate, taking part in a political rally or making calls to a member of Congress. “For some people, that can feel like they are getting out the ideas that are important to them,” she adds. “They are engaging with people who have the same questions and concerns and may feel some shared strength in that.”

 Two people play a political game of Guess Who

A game of political Guess Who. Photo by Avanell Brock

Counterintuitively, engaging in conversations with people who don’t necessarily share your views can help reduce stress by narrowing the perceived gulf, Bufka adds. “Fundamentally, most of us want our families to be healthy, we want work that allows us to have a comfortable living and we want an environment that is clean,” she says. “We can find some places where we have common ground.”

While talking to the “other side” at first may seem scary — perhaps even anxiety-producing — in the long run, it can help build tolerance and resilience. “Seeing an opposing point of view evokes cognitive stress,” Chesire says. “But, over time, you may be able to shift perspectives and not consider them as completely antithetical.” Like any good skill, developing that kind of empathy and good citizenship takes practice, but starting by turning on different news channels and listening with a curious attitude can help acquire tolerance over time. “Discomfort is nature’s way of telling us this is growth,” he adds. “Maybe we can emerge better listeners and more empathic.”

Klinghard reminds us that, ultimately, political strife never lasts forever. “These things come in cycles and people burn themselves out and lose their taste for the fight,” he says. “There are these big moments and then there tends to be a return back toward comity and peace.” The trick, he says, is to do that without sweeping difficult issues under the rug. By confronting the issues that divide us now — however difficult and stressful that might seem — we have an opportunity to reduce anxiety in the future.

“When people open their hearts and listen more to their neighbors than their newscasters, it goes a long way to having productive conversations,” says Peter Flaherty ’87, a longtime political consultant who has run campaigns for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and other Republican candidates, and is currently a distinguished visiting lecturer at the J.D. Power Center.

“Too many times people try and avoid politics at all costs — but political issues are human issues. When people can have a conversation, liberals might find two or three things they like about Donald Trump and conservatives can find a few things they like about some of the Democratic candidates. That’s the best way to get engaged and stay engaged.”

Written by Michael Blanding for the Winter 2020 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

About Holy Cross Magazine
Holy Cross Magazine (HCM) is the quarterly alumni publication of the College of the Holy Cross. The award-winning publication is mailed to alumni and friends of the College and includes intriguing profiles, make-you-think features, alumni news, exclusive photos and more. Visit magazine.holycross.edu/about to contact HCM, submit alumni class notes, milestones, or letters to the editor.

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