How election-watching could affect our health

If you’re a politics junkie, there’s been plenty to sink your teeth into over the past five years. 

There was the 2016 Brexit referendum, and overseas we saw the tumultuous clash between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Then 2017 brought another general election, which put Theresa May in charge of a minority government, swiftly followed by another in 2019 when Boris Johnson was elected. And today we’re all gripped by the fallout of Trump’s clash with Joe Biden. 

But while there are plenty of us who feel very engaged and excited by watching it all unfold, there’s some evidence that election watching might not be great news for our health. 

As anyone who watches the results come in will know, elections can be stressful, even when your chosen candidates appear to be doing well, and as we all know, stress is bad for your health. 

A 2016 study from Harvard University found that hospitalisations from cardiovascular disease (heart attacks and stroke) were 1.62 times higher in the two days after the 2016 US presidential election compared with the two weeks prior. Heart attacks increased by 67 per cent while strokes increased by 59 per cent; the results cut across age, race, and sex though stopped short of noting whether the political affiliations of patients had an impact. 

The study noted that similar increases in cardiovascular disease hospital admissions resulted from traumatic public events such natural disaster, terrorist attacks and industrial accidents. 

An Israeli study from 2011 looked at the relationship between democracy and stress hormones in the aftermath of elections, and found that the very act of voting increases cortisol in the body. Cortisol is a stress hormone which, if elevated in the long term, can lead to weight gain, diabetes, bone loss and metabolic disorders. This particular study only looked at cortisol levels at the ballot box, and not long term, so it’s impossible to say if heightened cortisol levels will be similar throughout. 

We also know there’s at least some association between health and political disappointment if your chosen candidate, party or outcome doesn’t win an election. 

A 2017 study from Harvard University found that in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, certain groups such as immigrants and racial minorities could be at greater risk of stress, disease, premature births and premature deaths. 

On the other hand, the study noted that Trump’s supporters received a short-term boost in mental health, including feelings of “psychological wellbeing, pride and hope for the future.” Seventy two per cent of Democrats admitted to feeling psychological stress in the wake of Trump’s 2016 win, compared with 25 per cent of Republicans, with the figures similar in the opposite direction when Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012. 

Even so, the doom and gloom of being on the losing side of an election might not be as bad as waiting for a definitive answer. We know that political uncertainty is bad for our health, with studies linking the unclear outcome of Brexit to increased blood pressure and decreased immune system function, as well as vastly increased levels of anxiety. 

Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, we know that in the UK has seen a 13.7 per cent increase in prescriptions for antidepressants. “Recent figures from the HSA [Health and Safety Executive] also show that 57 per cent of absence from work is now due to stress, anxiety or depression,” Sir Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester told The Telegraph. “This is the highest it’s ever been. A few years ago it was musculoskeletal issues –  bad backs – but now it’s stress. My own view is that Brexit stress is causing people to get ill,” he said at the time. 

“It’s been… years of thinking: ‘Will the economy dive bomb? Will the NHS be OK? My house won’t sell – is Brexit to blame? Is my job safe? Will my company downsize?’ Over time, prolonged political chaos and drip-fed uncertainty triggers the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline to be released, which reduces immunity.”

Prolonged stress increases cortisol levels in the long-term which can push us into rash decision making, unhealthy eating, diabetes and increased risk of cardiovascular disease, suggesting that a short, sharp shock on election night might be better than prolonged infighting. 

As for what you can do to avoid all this, the bad news is: not very much. Politics is all-consuming. The only real solutions are to look after your own mental health in the small ways we’re always advised to: eat well, get enough sleep, limit your use of social media, and remember that you’re in control of how you respond to situations, not the situation itself. 

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