(This post has been updated to reflect how stress broke down among Democrats and Republicans.)
We’re a nation of people already wound pretty tight. But right now we’re more stressed out than we’ve been in the past decade, according to a survey released Wednesday.
The American Psychological Association polls Americans about their stress every year, and it’s common for many of those polled to report anxiety around personal life issues like work and money. This time, however, people are also citing politics as a serious stressor in their lives.
Last year, the APA, which represents psychologists across the country, heard from its members that their patients were experiencing high levels of anxiety in the lead-up to the presidential election. Since November, those emotions haven’t let up. They’ve actually gotten worse with political talk consuming therapy sessions.
Muslim Americans, immigrants and victims of sexual trauma are especially prone to greater stress since the election, and mental health specialists who work in Veterans Affairs hospitals have reported their patients have made comments such as “This isn’t what I risked my life for,” said Vaile Wright, a licensed psychologist and member of APA’s Stress in America team.
Because so many of its members were reporting election-related stress, the APA added questions about politics to its annual survey in August. When the negative feelings didn’t ease up, APA did another survey in January to capture stress levels post-election. In August, 71 percent of Americans reported feeling a physical or emotional symptom of stress at least one day that month. In January, 80 percent had symptoms such as tension headaches or feeling overwhelmed or depressed.
The survey, conducted by Harris Poll, found 66 percent of Americans reported stress about the future of the country, 57 percent about the current political climate and 49 percent about the election outcome. Minority groups, millennials, those living in urban areas, and those with a college education had higher levels of stress about the election, which is unsurprising since those demographics tend to lean left politically.
“The fact that two-thirds of Americans are saying the future of the nation is causing them stress, it is a startling number,” Wright said. “It seems to suggest that what people thought would happen, that there would be relief [after the election] did not occur, and instead since the election, stress has increased. And not only did overall stress increase, what we found in January is the highest significant increase in stress in 10 years. That’s stunning.”
While Democrats surveyed were overwhelmingly more stressed about the election outcome than Republicans (72 percent to 26 percent), a majority of people from both parties, 59 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of Democrats, said they are stressed about the future of the country.
Wright suggests the best way to ease stress related to what’s happening in Washington is to disentangle yourself from the minute-by-minute deluge of negative news. There’s so much to consume and internalize that people’s hyper-vigilance is causing more harm than good.
“It’s not just about who won the election. It’s having a much larger impact, and it likely has to do with this global sense of uncertainty, divided-ness and this unprecedented speed of change,” she said. “So we try to seek out ways to control it, which is to be informed. And while it’s really important to stay informed right now, there’s a point where you have to know your limits; there’s a saturation point where there isn’t new information.”
Take national security adviser Michael Flynn’s resignation late Monday night, Wright said. Most people didn’t need that information at 11 p.m.; nothing would have changed if they’d waited until morning to hear that news.
“All it serves to do is get you riled up again when you should be prioritizing going to sleep, winding down, preparing for the next day,” she said.
Maintaining such high levels of constant stress puts a strain on your relationships, work and health, which only compounds the stress. It’s a vicious cycle that people need to actively remove themselves from by making a conscious choice to disengage and focus on friends, family and activities that bring them joy, she said.
“Know your limits — really prioritize taking care of yourself,” Wright said. “People think, if I choose to cope or do something for myself, I’m saying what’s happening isn’t a big deal. But the reality is burnout isn’t going to help anybody.”