The stress of following daily political news can negatively affect people’s mental health and well-being, but disengaging has ramifications, too, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

There are strategies that can help people manage those negative emotions—such as distracting oneself from political news—but those same strategies also reduce people’s drive to act on political causes they care about, the research found.

“When it comes to politics, there can be a trade-off between feeling good and doing good,” said Brett Q. Ford, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. “Protecting oneself from the stress of politics might help promote well-being but it also comes at a cost to staying engaged and active in democracy.”

The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Previous research and polling data have found that politics can be a major stressor in people’s lives, according to the researchers. However, most of that research has focused on major political events such as presidential elections. Ford and her colleagues wanted to explore the emotional and mental health effects of everyday political news and how people use different strategies to manage those negative emotions.

“Politics isn’t just something that affects people every four years during election season—it seems to seep into daily life. But we just don’t know much about the day-to-day impact politics might have,” Ford said.

To learn more, she and her colleagues began by asking a politically diverse sample of 198 Americans to answer a series of questions each night for two weeks about the political event they thought about most that day, the emotions they felt in response, how they managed those emotions, their general psychological and physical well-being that day, and how motivated they felt to engage in political action.

Overall, the researchers found that thinking about daily political events evoked negative emotions in participants—even though the survey question had not asked participants to think of negative political events. Participants who experienced more politics-related negative emotions reported worse day-to-day psychological and physical health on average—but they also reported greater motivation to act on political causes by doing things such as volunteering or donating money to political campaigns.

The survey also asked participants about several strategies they might have used to manage their negative emotions, including distracting themselves from the news and “cognitive reappraisal,” or reframing how they thought about a news event to make it seem less negative. Participants who successfully used these strategies to manage their negative emotions reported better daily well-being, but also less motivation to take political action.

Next, the researchers replicated these results over three weeks with a larger group of 811 participants that included not only Democrats and Republicans but also people affiliated with a different political party or no party.

Anxiety and stress from political discourse

In a second set of experiments, Ford and her colleagues asked participants to watch political news clips from the highest-rated liberal and conservative-leaning news shows rather than simply asking them to report on politics they had encountered. In these experiments, participants watched a clip from either the Rachel Maddow Show (for liberal participants) or Tucker Carlson Tonight (for conservative participants). In a first experiment, the researchers found that participants who watched the political clip experienced more negative emotions than those who watched a neutral, non-political news clip, and reported more motivation to volunteer for political causes or take other political action. The effect held true for participants across political parties.

In a final experiment, the researchers asked participants to try out several different emotion regulation strategies as they watched the clips—distraction, cognitive reappraisal, or acceptance of their negative feelings. Replicating the results from the diary studies, the researchers found two of the strategies, distraction and cognitive reappraisal, consistently reduced participants’ negative emotions which in turn predicted better well-being, but indirectly reduced the likelihood that they would want to take political action.

Overall, the results suggest that politics have a significant daily effect on many Americans’ health and well-being, according to the authors.

“Modern politics—its daily controversies, incivility and ineptitude—puts a regular emotional burden on Americans,” said Matthew Feinberg, PhD, a coauthor of the paper and professor of organizational behavior at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

This has important implications, particularly for activists who wish to get people involved in advocating for political causes without harming their mental health, according to the researchers.

“In a way, this is a trade-off between individual wellness and collective wellness,” Ford said. “We are working toward identifying strategies that people can use to protect their own well-being without coming with costs to the broader collective. This paper begins to address this by studying emotional acceptance—a strategy that is linked with greater well-being for individuals in daily life, and which doesn’t seem to come with consistent costs to collective action. It is important that people have a variety of tools they can use to manage the chronic stress of day-to-day politics while also maintaining the motivation to engage with politics when needed.”

Political polarization and mental health

This article is provided by Dr. Ralph Kueche (Child Psychologist). Dr. Kuechle is a Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist who specializes in treating children and their families who may be struggling with mood and behavioral issues. Learn more about Dr. Kuechle.