Politics is making Americans sick, tired and stressed out, study finds

Survey asked people how they thought politics affected their physical health, mental health, regretted behavior and social costs.
That time of the month is never fun
Nearly 40 percent of participants in the study said that politics was stressing them out. And many reported saying and writing things they later regretted.Getty Images stock

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By Sara G. Miller

It's true: Americans are sick over politics.

That's the conclusion of a study published Wednesday in the journal Plos One, which looked at the physical and emotional toll of paying attention to and participating in the political discourse.

The findings show that "large numbers of American adults see politics as exacting a significant set of costs on their social, emotional, psychological and even physical health," said lead study author Kevin Smith, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska.

The sheer numbers were striking: "If these numbers are accurate, people are basically reporting that engaging in politics is creating something of a public health problem, " Smith told NBC News.

Those effects run the gamut from lost friendships to thoughts of moving, "even thoughts of suicide," Smith said.

Still, this is just one survey, so the results should be taken with a grain of salt. "Until we get more we get more data, we won’t know whether this is really something systematic," or whether the numbers influenced by factors like sampling errors, he said.

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Smith's study looked at survey data collected by YouGov in March, 2017 on 800 Americans — a time at which the costs of politics were "unusually acute," the researchers wrote.

The YouGov survey included 32 questions that delved into how people thought politics affected their physical health, mental health, regretted behavior and social/lifestyle costs. The questions were adapted from diagnostic tools used by organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous.

The researchers noted that the goal of the research was not to determine whether politics was, in fact, the cause of people's distress, but rather, whether people believe it to be the cause.

Nearly 40 percent of the respondents said that politics was stressing them out, the study found.

About one in 10 said that politics had adversely affected their physical health. One in 5 people said that politics had caused them to lose sleep, and the same number reported politics causing them fatigue. Four percent reported that politics had caused them to be suicidal.

Paying attention to politics had other effects as well: 32 percent of respondents said exposure to media outlets promoting views contrary to their personal beliefs could drive them crazy; 29 percent said they've lost their temper as a result of politics; 22 percent said they care too much about election outcomes; and 20 percent said that politics had damaged a friendship.

But the study also found that many respondents didn't want to feel this way: 10 to 25 percent reported thinking, caring and focusing on politics more than they wanted; saying and writing things they later regretted; and making bad decisions related to politics.

Eleven percent said they felt empty at the end of major political events.

Smith noted that people who lean to the left politically — namely, liberals, Democrats and people who don't support President Trump — were more likely to report suffering these costs.

But Smith stressed that more research is needed.

"Would we see similar numbers if Obama was in office?," Smith asked. "We honestly don't know. This could simply be a product of an unusual and particularly polarizing environment, but we just don’t know."

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.