Published by louishoffmanphd on September 25, 2020

Managing Political Stress in Turbulent Political Times

Like many therapists, I have witnessed an increasing number of clients report feeling stress, anxiety, and depression due to exposure to increasing polarized politics in the United States. Many friends and family have voiced similar experiences, and I have experienced some of this myself. In considering this from a psychological perspective, it is important to first recognize that this is a normal reaction to an unhealthy environment and situation. While this has implications for individuals, it is not as much a personal problem as a social problem that impacts individuals. Certainly, there are individual aspects that influence this, but it is important to not minimize the influence of the social context. 

As a therapist, I am growing increasingly concerned about the psychological impact of the intersection of politics, the news media, and social media. While what is occurring in the political world itself is distressing, this is multiplied by media and social media exposure. Over time, I have found three strategies that have helped people to decrease political stress. As clients, family members, and friends have used some of these strategies, most have reported that it has decreased their stress and anxiety while increasing their overall positive emotions. This has been my personal experience as well. It is important to note that these strategies have not been empirically tested. I hope that eventually this may happen. 

Being Informed, but Not Over-Informed

Staying informed is an important responsibility of citizens of a democracy. However, there seems to be a growing tendency in the United States to be over-informed and over-exposed to the news media. Frequently, people report hearing the same stories over and over again, or reading them with very similar perspectives as presented from various news outlets. This over-exposure often does not increase how informed one is. One way to decrease stress is to work to strive to find a balance between being informed and being over-exposed. This balance is not the same for everyone and it is not easy to achieve. Often, it takes some time to find the right balance. Here are a few tips:

  • Before reading an article, ask yourself if you are already informed about this news item. If so, then you may choose to skip this article or only skim it for possible new information or updates. 
  • Limit yourself to a set amount of time of news consumption in a day or week. This may encourage you to be more selective about the news sources you read. Also, as you decrease the time spent consuming news, track your perception of your stress, anxiety, agitation, and depression. If this decreases as you spend less time consuming the news, then it is a good sign that you were being over-exposed or over-informed. 

Relying Upon Media Outlets with Less Bias and Less Dramatic Staging of the News

Many news outlets provide as much political commentary as news in contemporary culture. The political commentary is often heavily biased and, at times, distorts facts. For example, MSNBC and Fox News are two popular news outlets; however, they are highly partisan and often not factual. One of these is more liberal or progressive leaning while one is more conservative leaning. These sources often use more dramatic headlines to convince readers to click on the links and read articles. These headlines, however, often distort the truth. It is increasingly common for people to obtain their “information” from headlines alone. 

Many people perceive the news sources that agree with their political beliefs as being more accurate; however, this is not necessarily the case. Similarly, many people believe that watching news sources that largely align with their political viewpoints are less stressful. However, the news sources that align with conservative or liberal/progressive beliefs often work to stir up anger and distrust of people with different political beliefs. While there is an aspect that is more comforting (i.e., the alignment with one’s beliefs), there is an aspect tends to stir anxiety, frustration, and anger (i.e., the polarized political perspectives that often demonize “the other.”). When one only hears one side of the argument, as is common with these more partisan news outlets, one becomes less informed and often more reactive to dissenting views.

I transitioned a few years ago to trying to obtain most of my news from sources that were rated as less biased and sources that did not rely upon dramatic headlines to lure in readers. As I encouraged others to do this, many reported that it decreased their perceived levels of stress and agitation. Here’s some tips that may help decrease your stress from more biased or dramatic news outlets:

  • Avoid reading news articles and stories when the headline is overly dramatic. 
  • Choose media outlets that are rated as “least biased.” Media Bias/Fact Check is a good resource for this. It is a non-partisan, independent source that appraises levels of bias and accuracy in media sources. You can find a list of news outlets rated as Least Biased by Media Bias/Fact Check here: https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/center/
  • Before trusting a news outlet, check their rating for bias and accuracy. You can do this as well at Media Bias/Fact Check. Just go to their website and type the name of the news outlet in the search box. As Media Bias/Fact Check is quite comprehensive, if the source is not listed it is good to exercise some caution in trusting the source. 

Fact Checking

Mark Twain once stated, “Some of the worst things in my life never even happened.” Today we could say, “The worst things that I read about what happened in the world never actually happened.” I am amazed at how often I will read a story and be upset, then track down the original source and read the quote in context or read what actually happened and think, “That wasn’t so bad!” I might still disagree or have some concern about what happened, but tracking down the actual information proved that it was not as bad as it was presented in the news media. 

There also appears to be a rise in people’s exposure to conspiracy theories that promote information that has been proven wrong or has little, if any, supporting evidence. Fact checking can be a great way to become more informed and decrease stress at the same time. Here are some tips for fact checking:

  • Do your own fact checking. When you hear something that sounds bad, go to original sources and listen for yourself. For example, if you hear a political figure say something that is controversial, go listen to or read their speech to get the information in context.
  • Always work to put information in context. Most people will state things that, if taken out of context, sound really awful. However, when you listen to it in context it is not so bad. It is common for the more partisan news media outlets to take quotes out of context to make a politician or other figure look bad or to create a dramatic headline. When you hear a disturbing quote, go to the original source and listen to the quote in context. 
  • Use non-partisan fact check resources. Fact checking has become more popular and there are many fact check websites as well as many newspaper and other media outlets that provide fact checking. Some fact checking sources remain biased. Many of the more partisan fact checks often are still accurate in their fact checking, but they may add in problematic commentary and sometimes they are not accurate. There are times where it is important to fact check the fact checkers. You can use Media Bias/Fact Check to check the bias and accuracy of Fact Checking sources as well. Just go to their website and search for the fact checking source. 
  • You can use search engines to fact check. I often type in something I heard (i.e., “did xxxx say xxxx?”) followed by “fact check” in quotation marks. Frequently, this will bring up fact checking sources on the particular issue. If I do not recognize the fact check source as a trusted source, I generally look them up on Media Bias/Fact Check or search to find more information about the source before trusting its fact checking. 

Conclusion

Dr. Kirk J. Schneider (2013, 2020), who is one of five finalists running for the president of the American Psychological Association in 2020, has identified polarization as one of the great psychological and social threats in contemporary culture. He defines polarization as, “the elevation of one point of view to the utter exclusion of competing points of view” (Schneider, 2013, p. 1). This polarization is behind much of the stress, anxiety, agitation, and depression associated with political and news media stress. A polarized state of mind tends to be an agitated state of mind. It is important to move beyond polarization and to be informed and open to different perspectives to be a responsible citizen. This, too, can decrease our political stress. 

If you find yourself impacted by political stress, I encourage you to pay attention to your level of political stress for a few days and then try implementing some or all of these strategies for a week or two. After a few weeks utilizing these strategies, rate your level of political stress once again and see if it has improved. It is not likely that your stress will go away completely. After all, there are a lot of distressing things happening in the world today. However, you may find that you are more informed and less stressed by implementing these few strategies. 

References 

Schneider, K. J. (2013) The polarized mind: Why it’s killing us and what we can do about it. University Professors Press.

Schneider, K. J. (2020). The depolarizing of America: A guidebook for social healing. University Professors Press. 

Disclaimer: In the service of transparency, Kirk Schneider, who is referenced in this blog, is a long-time friend and colleague. I am also the co-editor-in-chief of the publishing company that published the two books cited.

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