Many voters have cast the 2020 presidential election as a life-or-death decision.
Experts are advising people not to let the stress of this year’s superheated election season make that fatalistic prediction literally true.
An unusually high number of people checked into hospitals in the 2 days after Donald J. Trump won the 2016 presidential election, according to a new study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Kaiser Permanente.
And some experts worry that the same thing could happen this November.
“This is a wake-up call for every health professional that we need to pay greater attention to the ways in which stress linked to political campaigns, rhetoric, and election outcomes can directly harm health,” said David Williams, PhD, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Massachusetts and a study corresponding author.
The hospitalization rate for acute cardiovascular disease events in Southern California’s Kaiser Permanente health system was 1.62 times higher in the 2 days after Election Day 2016 than the same 2 days in the week prior to the election, according to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Hospital admissions for heart attacks and other acute cardiovascular events, including strokes, chest pain, and unstable angina, increased regardless of sex, age, race, and ethnicity.
In the 2 days immediately after Election Day 2016, the study found, the rate of hospitalizations at Kaiser Permanente hospitals for cardiovascular events was 573.14 per 100,000 person years (or 94 total hospitalizations), compared with a rate of 353.75 per 100,000 person years (or 58 total hospitalizations) on the same 2 days during the week prior to the election.
Sociopolitical stress can trigger cardiovascular events, the findings suggested, much as research has shown increases in acute cardiovascular events after traumatic episodes such as earthquakes, industrial accidents, terrorist attacks, death of loved ones, and even sporting events.
“It is important that people are aware that stress can trigger changes in their health, and that healthcare providers help patients cope with stress by encouraging wellness strategies such as exercise, yoga, meditation, and deep breathing,” said Matthew Mefford, PhD, an epidemiologist with the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Department of Research & Evaluation and a lead study author.
It’s widely acknowledged that Trump’s 2016 victory came as a shock to both major U.S. political parties, and to both candidates as well, not to mention most voters.
And the stress related to the 2020 campaign is even greater, according to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) annual Stress in America Survey, which first began collecting data on election-related stress in 2016.
According to the latest APA survey data released in July 2020, most American adults from both parties cite the current political climate as a significant source of stress in their life (77 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans).
That comes on top of high levels of stress regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and its related economic downturn, the survey found.
Lynn Bufka, PhD, associate executive director for practice research and policy at the APA, told Healthline that stress related to the upcoming election could be particularly exacerbated.
“Stress will increase as we approach a deadline,” said Bufka. “We need to think about how we will react knowing that we will not have an answer [to the election outcome]… in particular because of the logistics of counting all the early voting and the possibility that the race will be close and there will be challenges.”
“If you’re expecting an answer and you don’t get it, that can increase stress,” she said. “We’re going to have to sit with that stress and deal with it.”
On the other hand, said Bufka, the 2020 election outcome may not necessarily carry the shock value that the 2016 one did.
“Trump as president is for some people a chronic stress, whereas Trump being elected was an acute stress,” she said.
Bufka added that, conversely, Joe Biden winning in 2020 “could trigger an acute stress response for some people.”
Jolene Caufield, a healthcare advisor at a Maryland nonprofit organization advocating for healthy lifestyle choices called Healthy Howard, told Healthline that election-related stress is “a clear downside of being informed and engaged in this topic, so people should remember to set boundaries in order to preserve overall health.”
“Taking a break from spending time in social media can greatly help manage election stress disorder,” she said. “The media coverage of endless debates can already be taxing. It could only get worse if you add even just reading election-related arguments on social media in the equation. It’s also good to practice a new hobby to take your mind off things. Taking a walk outside could also make wonders in improving your mood.”
Bufka advised “accepting what we can’t change and focusing what we have control over” in the political process.
The latter includes voting, volunteering to ensure safe and secure elections, and encouraging others to vote, she said.
“These are things that people can engage in to exert some control,” said Bufka.
Controlling your anger over politics can be difficult, Bufka acknowledged, but another strategy to reduce stress is to be mindful of how you frame events in your own head.
“If you tell yourself this will be the worst outcome ever, you will elevate your level of stress,” she said. “Check yourself that you’re not going into that big, black hole that ‘everything is going to end.’”
Instead of being consumed by anger, said Bufka, be determined to “continue to work toward the values you support. That can lower the intensity of our response and be better for our overall physiological health.”
Individuals prone to the kind of election-related stress that can increase the risk of acute cardiovascular events also should make choices about how much information they consume, said Bufka.
That may mean turning off news alerts or disconnecting from the endless debates on social media.
Finally, there are tried-and-true methods for reducing stress, including physical activity, eating well, yoga, meditation, and getting enough sleep.
As for the election, “Mentally prepare yourself for whatever outcome occurs, and that there’s going to be a period of uncertainty,” said Bufka.