Stress in the Geopolitical Context

Presidential elections are always stressful, but this one was different. When Trump was elected nearly a year ago, more was at stake than conservative versus liberal policies. Many politicians have hidden racist or sexist leanings in policy in the past, but Trump was unashamed to openly say that Mexicans are rapists or that his talk about sexual assault was simply passable as “locker room talk.” He vowed to ban Muslims from the country, deport immigrants, and support “religious freedom” by threatening women’s health care. His election was unique not only because of his outrageous behavior, but also because it was a surprise—most people predicted a Clinton win. It was certainly a stressor for me, and unfortunately, the stress continues to this day.

However, this event was not stressful for all people. Majumbder et al. (2017) explored what factors might put people at risk for experiencing stress and anxiety as a result of the 2016 election. They sampled participants both before the election (October 20-21, 2016) and after (January 20-21, 2017). They found that women experienced more stress and anxiety than men, both before and after the election. In addition, in the post-election survey only, democrats and low socioeconomic status individuals experienced more stress than others. Interestingly, factors such as geographic region and age were not significant predictors of stress. Looking at individuals’ specific concerns, Majumbder et al. (2017) found that people concerned about Trump’s capability, moral values, international policy, immigration policy, and temperament, as well as those who thought the outcome of the election would impact things such as their healthcare or place of residence were more stressed than others. These findings are interesting in that they clearly go beyond partisan opinions. It would be interesting to see if people had such stressful concerns about previous presidents’ characters.

Unfortunately, there were some important data points missing from this study that would have been interesting to examine. For example, they did not ask about participants’ race in their initial survey. Given how racially charged Trump’s rhetoric was as a candidate, I’m not sure how they could have missed this! In addition, the post-election dates on which they conducted the second survey were both significant in their own ways and could have contaminated the data with stressors other than those simply associated with being “post-election.” January 20th was the Women’s March, a day in which people came out in historic numbers to support women’s rights, particularly related to reproductive healthcare. This day was also taken by many to be anti-Trump. January 21st, was Trump’s inauguration. Thus, measuring people’s stress or anxiety on these days may have been tapping into other issues besides Trump being elected (although clearly these events directly resulted from his election).

Beyond demographic characteristics and party affiliation, underlying beliefs about the way society should operate also influence how much stress people feel during an election. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Trawalter et al. (2012) investigated participants’ physiological response by measuring both testosterone and cortisol levels. Specifically, they were interested in whether the degree to which participants expressed social dominance orientation (SDO)—the view that the existing hierarchy is legitimate and should be upheld—would be related to their physiological markers. They found that while all participants experienced cortisol “blunting” the day of the election (preparing for the possibility that they would have to mobilize resources once the results came out), participants high in SDO experienced significantly higher morning values after the election, indicating they were more stressed. However, they also experienced significantly higher morning testosterone levels the day after the election, possibly indicating that they were ready to respond to Obama’s election and fight back against this perceived threat to the status quo. These two studies demonstrate that the way in which we experience significant geopolitical events varies greatly, not just based on our demographic characteristics, but also based on our attitudes.

Another major type of event that affects people throughout the world is terrorism. Terrorism can adversely affect health in a myriad of ways, including PTSD for those that experienced the event (in person or not), targeting of health centers, and an association with increased suicide rates and schizophrenia hospitalizations (Garfin & Holman, 2016; Strand et al., 2016). Interestingly, in many cases it is difficult to know whether being at the scene of the crime is actually worse than experiencing it indirectly (Garfin & Holman, 2016). This last point is quite interesting. Although some studies in Garfin & Holman’s (2016) review have examined the effects of watching television footage of events such as the 9/11 attacks on the world trade center in NYC, I believe media effects on trauma are understudied. Both 24 hour cable news channels and sites such as YouTube make traumatic events widely accessible and allow us to be exposed to these events over and over again. I am curious whether the benefits of knowing about an event outweigh the consequences of exposing more people to the traumatic event. For example, some people would consider police brutality against Black Americans as state-sponsored terrorism against Black communities. While I think it is really important that these terrible events be documented to raise awareness, what are the potential consequences to individuals who view these events over and over again, particularly Black individuals who may identify strongly with the victims? The degree to which we should control exposure to these events in the age of iPhone cameras and social media is surely an important debate we will continue to have in the future.

References

Garfin, D. R., & Holman, E. A. (2016). Terrorism and Health.

Majumder, M. S., Nguyen, C. M., Sacco, L., Mahan, K., & Brownstein, J. S. (2017). Risk factors associated with election-related stress and anxiety before and after the 2016 US Presidential Election.

Strand, L. B., Mukamal, K. J., Halasz, J., Vatten, L. J., & Janszky, I. (2016). Short-term public health impact of the July 22, 2011, terrorist attacks in Norway: a nationwide register-based study. Psychosomatic medicine78(5), 525-531.

Trawalter, S., Chung, V. S., DeSantis, A. S., Simon, C. D., & Adam, E. K. (2012). Physiological stress responses to the 2008 US presidential election: The role of policy preferences and social dominance orientation. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations15(3), 333-345.

 

One thought on “Stress in the Geopolitical Context

  1. Hi Raea! I really enjoyed reading your post – you brought up a lot of points and issues that I completely overlooked! I think your analysis of the post-election atmosphere is particularly interesting – do you think the Women’s March could have had a protective effect against post-election anxiety and stress or do you think it would have done the opposite (i.e. women may have been more anxious or stressed with the looming possibility of being stripped of their reproductive rights)?

    As you mention, media effects on trauma are understudied. Do you think we should be looking into how media influences how we recover (and if we recover) from more moderate stressors? I ask this because one of the biggest differences in social media between the 2008 and 2016 elections is the now-widespread use (and abuse…) of Twitter. Do you think we’re going to see more frequent and more severe post-election, stress-related health issues since we’re constantly being bombarded by Trump Tweets?

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