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Political Stress

Political dialogues, debates, and events can cause considerable levels of stress. In addition to events, the stress from unstable political regimes, oppression, and human rights violations confers a more serious and long-lasting type of stress with mental health consequences such as PTSD.  However, there has been little focused research attention on measurement of common political stress, and no measurement we are aware of on severe oppression or upheaval due to political regimes. Here we review the nascent development of measures, focused on perceived political stress, impacts of political stress, and emotion regulation of political stress.  

 

Perceived Political Stress. In the U.S., in recent years, increasing levels of attention in the media have pointed to the political climate as a key source of stress. According to a recent APA survey, 68% of Americans said the U.S. presidential election was a significant source of stress in their life. This represents an increase from 2016 when 52% of Americans agreed with this statement.   

 

Much of what we know about political stress comes from single item measures from large surveys. For example, the Harris Poll on behalf of the American Psychological Association lists a number of stressors and asks participants to indicate how significant a source of stress is in their lives. Some of these stressors include “the current political climate” and the “2022 U.S. mid-term elections.” Participants have also been asked about the extent to which they agree or disagree with statements such as, “The political climate has caused strain between my family members and me.” 

 

Given the paucity of scales on perceived political stress, we list new ones in development here: 

 

  1. The Perceived Political Stress Scale, Warren, Clarisse (2022), which is based on the stress scale suggested by Cohen, Kamarck and Mermelstein (1983) was proposed and psychometrically tested in a recent dissertation. 

    Warren, Clarisse (2022). “Political Stress and Its Impact on the Physical and Mental Health of Citizens.” University of Nebraska-Lincoln. DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska – Lincoln. 
     

  2. Smith, Kevin, Aaron Weinschenk and Costas Panagopoulos. “On Pins and Needles: Anxiety, Politics and the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election”.  Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Partiesin press).

    An 8 item measure of various aspects of the political environment that induce feelings of anxiety. 

 

Consequences of political stress. While single item measures may be useful in panel studies to minimize participant burden, single-item measures do not capture the full range of indicators of the underlying construct. Few studies have created multidimensional scales. In one study, Smith and researchers attempted to address this issue by creating a 32-item scale to measure effects of political stress (Smith et al., 2019). The scale focuses on various outcomes of political stressors and events and may extend beyond stress. For example, the item “Politics has led me to hate some people” may be related to or the cause of political stress as opposed to the feeling of stress caused by politics.  

 

The scale is composed of four subscales: physical health (e.g., “Politics has caused me to be stressed”), emotional health (e.g., “Exposure to media outlets promoting views contrary to mine can drive me crazy”), regretted behavior (“I spend more time thinking about politics than I would like”), and social and lifestyle health (e.g., “Differences in political views have damaged a friendship I valued”). The items from the scale were modeled after self-diagnostic measures used by Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous. Factor analyses tend to support a single factor, though the authors note that subscales could also be used individually. Reliability indicators of the whole scale and subscales are reasonably high though more psychometric testing is still needed (e.g., test-retest reliability, measurement invariance over time). A short 10-item version of the scale was also created (Smith et al., 2019).  

 

Regarding the nomological network of the factors, the political stress factors are negatively related to age, agreeableness, and emotional stability, and are positively related to dogmatism, liberal ideology, and political interest and participation. In other words, in this particular study, people who report higher levels of political stress tend to be younger, less agreeable, more neurotic, more liberal, and more highly engaged in politics. Though these findings provide an interesting initial investigation into the construct of political stress, more research in the measurement of political stress is needed. 

 

Emotion Regulation of Political Stress. In addition to measures of political stress, some researchers have recently studied emotion regulation strategies in the specific context of politics. These studies all have derived their measurement of daily or trait emotional regulation based on the Emotion Regulation Questionnaire (Gross & John, 2003). For example, Ford et al. (2019) adapted items from the ERQ specifically in the context of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election (e.g., “To manage my feelings about the election, I reinterpret the meaning of the situation in more neutral, less negative terms.”). In a different study that was conducted just after the 2016 election, participants were provided with descriptions of different emotion regulation strategies (distraction, reappraisal, and acceptance) and were asked to select which one they engaged in (Mehta et al., 2020).  

 

In daily diary studies, Ford et al. (in press) asked participants to think about a political event that was on their mind each day over the course of two-three weeks. They adapted items from the Emotion Regulation Questionnaire and asked participants how much they engaged in different strategies (e.g., “When thinking about politics today, I tried to make myself think about the situation in a way that would help me feel calmer.”).

 

Author(s) and Reviewer(s): Prepared by David Newman, PhD. Reviewed by John Jost, PhD, Brett Ford, PhD, and Kevin Smith, PhD.If you have questions or comments about this entry, please email David_Newman1@baylor.edu.

Version date: August 2023  

References:

 

Ford, B. Q., Feinberg, M., Lam, P., Mauss, I. B. John, O. (2019). Using reappraisal to regulate negative emotion after the 2016 U.S. presidential election: Does emotion regulation trump political action? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117, 998-1015. 

 

Ford, B. Q., Feinberg, M., Lassetter, B., Thai, S., & Gatchpazian, A. (in press). The Political is Personal: The Costs of Daily Politics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 

 

Gross, J. J., & John, O. P. (2003). Individual differences in two emotion regulation processes: Implications for affect, relationships, and wellbeing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 348 –362. 

 

Mehta, A., Formanowicz, M., Uusberg, A., Uusberg, H., Gross, J. J., & Suri, G. (2020). The regulation of recurrent negative emotion in the aftermath of a lost election. Cognition and Emotion, 34(4), 848-857.

 

Smith KB, Hibbing MV, Hibbing JR (2019) Friends, relatives, sanity, and health: The costs of politics. PLOS ONE 14(9): e0221870. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0221870   

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