Stress in Today’s Geopolitical World

As much as I want to think that the world is a good place, unfortunately our geopolitical climate makes this hard to believe. I think as I get older and am more aware of what is happening in the world around me, I have come to accept the saying that “humans are evil”. A terrible feeling of sadness and dread overcomes me as I type that last sentence. However, the unfortunate evil that surrounds us has been brought to my attention recently. Last week I had to complete a mandatory security awareness training for the army. One of the first videos that was presented was an informational tutorial detailing the steps and processes one should take if you encountered an active shooter scenario. My initial naïve reaction was to wonder why they were presenting this video? When would I possibly need to use these strategies? These initial thoughts of denial lasted for about 30 seconds until I unfortunately remembered the most recent event in Las Vegas, realizing that this is a real scenario that Americans might face. Although I have been fortunate enough to avoid any such tragedies firsthand, I can recall a number of significant events that have occurred in my lifetime. The most significant was the 9/11 attacks. Although it is a terrible memory that scars me, I find it fascinating how vivid that day still feels. I was in the 4th grade in Ms. Kelly’s class. We were doing a reading activity with partners when one of the teachers from down the hall came in and whispered something to Ms. Kelly, whose face immediately dropped, with an expression of sheer terror and fear. Immediately the class was ushered into the classroom next door where we watched as the second plane hit the Towers. The moments after were somewhat of a blur. I remember feeling confused as I wasn’t sure what was happening, but knowing that something was severely wrong as I surveyed the expressions of the teachers faces around me. I remember Ms. Kelly trying to console a fellow teacher, whose father worked in the towers. I then remember being at home with my mom watching the replay of the attacks on the news. Although I was not personally injured or negatively affected by the attacks, it was still a significant event in my life as it had a great impact on many people around me, both near and far. Proximity to such a tragedy is correlated with negative outcomes, but interestingly, it is not always associated with a dose-response relationship in terms of physical and mental symptoms (Garfin & Holman, 2016). Furthermore, though seeking social support through social contact is an effective and adaptive coping strategy following such an event, following the 9/11 attacks the number of daily social interactions did not increase (Garfin & Holman, 2016). This suggests that perhaps there may be some specificity in the use of social support following such acts of terrorism. Additionally, Strand and colleagues (2016) reported how public health of citizens was impacted following a similar act of terrorism in Norway. One of the most striking observations was an 165% increase in suicide rate in the days immediately following the act of terror, in addition to hospitalizations due to schizophrenia, psychosis, myocardial infarction or preterm birth. These findings highlight that acts of terrorism significantly impact physical and mental health, regardless of whether one is specifically involved in the act or not.

Experiencing or witnessing acts of terrorism can have significant impacts on health and well-being, but interestingly, outcomes of presidential elections can similarly elicit feelings of stress. Segments of the American population differentially responded to outcomes surrounding the 2008 and 2016 elections. Our country’s first African American president was elected in 2008, which differentially influenced physiological reactions in citizens. Prior to the election, republicans exhibited stunted cortisol reactions, but following the election social dominance orientation significantly influenced stress responses. Those high in SDO, who endorse a hierarchical arrangement of racial groups, had greater stress response (as evidenced in higher morning cortisol levels) (Trawalter et al., 2011). Perhaps for these individuals, the election of an African American shattered the stability of their endorsed hierarchies, yielding increased feelings of stress. In contrast, the most recent election elicited significant feelings of stress in 52% of Americans. However, stress elicited from the latest election was likely not due to fear that long-established racial or social hierarchies would be abolished, but rather that such hierarchies might come to exist again. Majumder and colleagues (2017) found those who were at risk for election related stress both pre and post 2016 elections were women and those with low household income. Thus, unfortunately this past election brought feelings of stress and anxiety to individuals in groups that have notoriously been neglected in decades past. These literature’s demonstrate that not only do extreme acts of violence or terror elicit a significant impact on us, but changes in those appointed to protect us from such terror also influences our emotional well-being.

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One Response to Stress in Today’s Geopolitical World

  1. Hello Julie, very nice post about a not so nice topic. This may have been discussed in the Garfin & Holman article, but I was wondering how different it would be experiencing acts of terrorism through different media outlets/different times. For example, I was in kindergarten when 9/11 happened so I don’t remember anything about that day, thus I didn’t really have a reaction to the event at that time. However, we read about the event in a textbook we had in 5th grade, I believe. Of course it was still devastating to think that this horrible act was conducted, however, I hardly felt like I lived through it since I was so young. This might sound morbid, but maybe instead of reading about the attack in a textbook, teachers might want to show the footage that was being shown on the news when the event was unfolding in order to teach kids the real devastation that occurred.

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