Wisdom//

Politics Is Making America Sick

A guide for staying healthy as we go into the 2020 election.

emyerson / Getty Images
emyerson / Getty Images

Is politics these days making you sick? I mean, literally sick? According to a new study published last week by researchers from the University of Nebraska, that’s the case for millions of Americans. The numbers are as startling — and grim — as the headlines apparently driving them. 

  • Nearly 40 percent of Americans said politics was making them feel stressed out.
  • Almost 12 percent reported that politics was damaging their physical health.
  • More than 20 percent said politics had negatively affected a friendship.
  • Over 29 percent said they’d lost their temper because of politics. 
  • Nearly 20 percent said they were losing sleep over politics. 
  • Eleven percent reported feelings of emptiness after political events. 
  • Just over four percent said that politics had made them feel suicidal.

As Kevin Smith, the lead author of the study, put it: “If these numbers are accurate, people are basically reporting that engaging in politics is creating something of a public health problem.” 

And that’s too bad, because politics — and especially elections — are supposed to be about solving public health problems, not fueling them.

But the study comes at a good time — it’s a reminder that as the media, political parties and campaigns gear up for the 2020 election, which officially kicks off with the Iowa caucuses in only four months, we need to gear up, too. 

Being engaged in an election is about a lot more than pulling the lever in the voting booth (sorry, I’m dating myself; I mean, filling in the tiny oval and then feeding your ballot into the scanner). But like voting, which requires taking steps to register as a prerequisite to vote, being engaged in politics — at least in a sustainable way — also requires some preparation. 

The way the study puts it is that these negative health effects are the results of “exposure to politics.” There are plenty of potentially dangerous things in our lives that we have to expose ourselves to: the sun, cleaning products, “The Bachelor.” We can interact with all of them in a safe way, as long as we do it in the right way.

Of course, there’s no end of things to be outraged about — family separations, inaction on climate change, the use of American foreign policy as a personal oppo-research tool. And, while it all might make us feel like the world is out of control, we have to remember that our inner world — our reactions to what’s happening — is very much in our control.

When we live in a perpetual cycle of outrage, we’re depleted, run-down, sleep-deprived and, as the new study shows, even physically ill. All of that weakens our ability to take action and change outcomes on the issues we care most about. 

What I’m saying is the opposite of “disengage.” I’m saying engage in a way that’s sustainable and productive. That’s the only way to be effective. And that means being very deliberate about stepping out of the storm and into the calm center. It’s about finding what the Greeks called “ataraxia” — the place of imperturbability within all of us. It’s from that place — the eye of the hurricane — that we can truly have an impact on the world. 

So as we ramp up to Iowa, New Hampshire and, quite possibly, an impeachment hearing, here are a few tips, or, as we call them at Thrive Global, Microsteps.

1. Log off Twitter regularly. And for long stretches. You’ve heard of intermittent fasting? Try intermittent digital fasting — gradually lengthening the amount of time you go cold turkey. 

2. Get out and get involved. Just passively watching increases feelings of helplessness, which in turn fuels outrage and stress. Whatever issue you care about, there will be local groups that allow you to channel that outrage into action.

3. Sleep. This is good advice all the time, but if a yearlong National Stress Event provides an opportunity to renew your relationship with it, all the better. Think of it as sunblock to guard against political sunburn.

4. Frequently mentioned in the study is the stress of talking politics with friends and family who have differing views. With the holidays coming up, instead of sitting around the house waiting for someone to pull the pin on a political hand-grenade (“You know what I hate…?”), get out of the house and do something — create some shared experiences.

5. See #1.

However bad the political landscape seems now, it’s only going to get worse in the next 13 months until the election. So, as one (American) president said to another (Ukrainian) president, “I would like you to do us a favor, though”: Engage, but in a way that’s good for you and good for the country. 

Read More: Do Something Meaningful With All That Outrage: Lessons from the Civil Rights movement — and the Stoics — can help us channel our anger into change.

Subscribe here for my Weekly Thoughts Newsletter, where you’ll find my take on the week’s news, my favorite pieces on how we can thrive even in our stressful world, and some fun and inspiring extras.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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