Staying up-to-date on political news is an important part of civic engagement, yet daily exposure to politics can lead to chronic stress. These were the findings of a new study from the University of Toronto, New York University, and Brock University, which surveyed more than 1,000 Americans across political affiliations.
The study was co-authored by Brett Ford, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at U of T Scarborough, and Matthew Feinberg, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at the Rotman School of Management. It was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Too much news is bad news for our mental health
Constant exposure to the news is bad for our mental health, and even affects the way we think and concentrate throughout the day. The researchers behind the present study were interested in learning how political news in particular can further affect our emotional well-being.
To do this, they surveyed more than 1,000 Americans in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election. The study participants included Democrats, Republicans and independent voters.
In the first survey, study participants were asked to record their emotions after reading political news and describe how they managed their emotions. They were also asked whether they felt inclined to participate in political activities such as volunteering, donating to political campaigns, or contacting their political representatives.
The results of this first survey showed that on average, politics tended to evoke negative emotions, including stress, in study participants. The researchers also found that the more negative these emotions were, the more likely participants were to participate in political activities.
On the other hand, participants who tried to regulate their emotions in some way — for example, by distracting themselves from political news altogether — reported lower levels of stress. Yet these same participants also tended to have less motivation to stay engaged in political activities.
In the second survey, participants were shown clips of political news shows and asked to either report their emotions, or try different emotional regulation techniques. These included reappraisal (meaning thinking about the political situation in a new light) and distraction (meaning not thinking about the political situation at all).
Again, the researchers found that participants who tried to regulate their emotions reported higher emotional well-being, yet lower motivation to participate in politics.
The importance of striking the right balance
Overall, this study highlight the fine balance between staying engaged in politics without letting political news overwhelm you. While staying up-to-date on the news is an important part of civic engagement, it can also lead to chronic stress.
“The stress of daily politics poses an unfortunate dilemma. It seems that people who are better able to deal with the daily stress of politics are also less likely to be politically involved,” Ford explained in a press release.
“It’s perfectly reasonable to want to protect yourself in the face of chronic stress, but we also need to understand the potential drawbacks […] which is that people might be less likely to take action to change the systems that caused those emotions in the first place.”
The researchers suggest emotional acceptance as one strategy for dealing with political news. This means allowing yourself to feel negative emotions, and accepting them as a natural response to tough situations. Limiting the time you spend doomscrolling could also help.
By mindfully engaging with political media, we can make sure we’re doing our civic duty while also safeguarding our mental health.