How to Stay Politically Engaged With Less Stress

American politics have become fractured, and it's taking a toll on anyone who tries to keep up. freelanceartist/Shutterstock

It's not just in your head — these tough political times are making all of us a little sick. From losing sleep to feeling depressed to arguing with family and friends, today's democracy in action isn't exactly inspiring any of us.

New research from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln published in the journal PLOS ONE reveals that many Americans "are suffering some pretty negative consequences because of their attention to and engagement in politics," author and political scientist Kevin Smith tells NPR.

The research is the first of its kind to look at the physical and emotional toll of political participation, arguably more difficult to measure than the economic costs, which is what previous research has concentrated on. Past studies focused on more measurable costs, like taking time off from work to vote, or monetarily supporting a political campaign.

This new angle on political participation was achieved by asking respondents a series of questions to gauge their political activity level and how it affected their mood and emotional wellbeing. The results? Almost 40% of participants said politics created stress in their lives. About 1 in 5 said they had lost sleep, felt fatigued or even depressed due to politics. Around 20% said politics had hurt their friendships.

Smith wasn't exactly surprised that politics were stressing participants out, but he says, "What I felt was kind of eye-popping was simply the sheer numbers of people saying that they experienced this."

Politics is a civic duty, not a sport

hand holds remote and points at tv
Resist the urge to be an 'armchair quarterback' when it comes to political news. Victor Semionov Follow [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

This sort of emotional rollercoaster with politics isn't new. In a 2017 op-ed for The New York Times, Tufts political science professor Eitan D. Hersh called this kind of emotional engagement "political hobbyism." He bemoans that being a participant in democracy has become a spectator sport, fueled by snarky Facebook posts and viral videos of politicians' gaffes. This sort of "cheap participation" has replaced the everyday, more mundane forms of activism: community organizing, engaging in local elections and voting in the midterms.

Hersh argues that when we view politics as a reality show, expecting entertainment instead of doing our civic duty, we're bound to lose interest — at best, we're bored, at worst, we don't show up at the ballot box. That's not to say you shouldn't tweet your support of the latest political candidate, but rather, make sure that tweet is followed by real, concrete action. Arguing with your uncle on Facebook isn't going to save democracy, let alone your sanity.

Of course, most of us don't want to switch off social media completely. It not only helps us stay connected to friends and family in other places, but has also increasingly become a source of news and information, both local and global. However, constant bombardment from social media, text alerts and news notifications could be contributing to "headline stress disorder," a term created by therapist Steven Stosny in an article for The Washington Post.

Know when to tune in, and when to tune out

woman looks at bad news on phone at night in bed
It's good to stay informed, but know when it's time to take a digital break. Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Stosny writes that since the 2016 election, his practice has seen many couples struggling to find peace when the news headlines are anything but. He writes, "For many people, continual alerts from news sources, blogs, social media and alternative facts feel like missile explosions in a siege without end." Women, in particular, feel vulnerable these days, thanks to the gender gap in issues as wide-ranging as representation in political office, salary and domestic labor.

However, Stosny urges that, "The very thing that renders women particularly vulnerable to the aftershocks of this unprecedented election is also their greatest strength: the desire to connect, affiliate, nurture, grow and protect." It is these exact kinds of connections that can help all of us to get through these trying political times: whether that's participating in a climate strike, going door-to-door canvassing in your neighborhood, or simply meeting up with a friend in person, rather than through a screen.

After their 2016 "Stress in America" survey revealed that 66% of people say the future of our nation is a significant source of stress, the American Psychological Association released steps you can take to manage this kind of emotional tension. If you find yourself obsessively checking the news throughout the day, take "digital breaks," which could mean stepping away from the screen and taking the dog for a run, or making sure to stop your news consumption at a definitive time every night.

Try also to seek solace when you're feeling stressed. It can be as simple as a walk in the woods, meditation and mindfulness practices, or meeting up with like-minded friends. Look for commonalities in others instead of jumping into a heated discussion with someone whose beliefs differ from your own. The world is a diverse place, and we're not always going to agree with everyone we meet. If you find it impossible to have a civilized conversation, online or in-person, it might be best to disengage and let it be.

Channel feelings of powerlessness into direct action, whether that's writing letters to your state representative or lobbying Congress in person. The old adage, "Be the change you wish to see in the world," has never rung so true. Focus on the bigger picture by looking back at how our country has struggled, and persevered, through other difficult times in the past, and stay true to your own moral compass. In the words of Stosny, "For optimal psychological health, take the moral high ground and resist the urge to react to a jerk like a jerk."