Stress Epidemic. Our Political Leaders Are Making it Worse.

This is an occasional blog on subjects pertaining to leadership, strategy, coaching, leadership development, and everything in between. You can sign up using the form at the left/below. © 2017 McKnight-Kaney.

Every year, the American Psychological Association conducts what it calls the “Stress in America Survey.” This year’s (January, 2017) is a doozy: “Two-thirds of Americans say they are stressed about the future of our nation, including a majority of both Democrats and Republicans.” The APA went on to note that “this is first significant increase in the 10 years since the Stress in America survey began.” 

Americans have been increasingly stressed since the Great Recession of 2008 when the APA survey showed that levels were sky high. As the economy settled, this improved a bit, but has crept up again in the last 18 months, owing to ongoing stressors pertaining to the economy and job worries, as well as to political tensions.

According to the APA’s January, 2017 poll, “More than half of Americans (57 percent) say the current political climate is a very or somewhat significant source of stress, and nearly half (49 percent) say the same about the outcome of the election.”

As you might expect, Democrats are far more stressed over the outcome of the Presidential Election than Republicans, (72 percent vs. 26 percent), but both a majority of Republicans (59 percent) and Democrats (76 percent) said the nation‘s future was a significant source of stress.

It‘s hard to get away from the stressful effects of politics, especially when the President thrills in creating disturbing headlines and the Congress is dysfunctional. Trump's latest disruption is an apparently baseless claim about Obama wiretapping him just prior to the election and there is, again, trouble in Congress as the Republicans are already squabbling among themselves over the replacement to Obamacare.

The stress of politics is going on now for many months: in August of last year, the APA reported that 52 percent of Americans felt that the presidential election was a significant source of stress for them.

Stress, of the nature this study talks about—chronic, unabated—is especially harmful. High levels of stress are never pleasant, but episodic stress is less to worry about than this kind. This type leads to what is called The General Adaptation Syndrome (see my blog about this here), the phenomenon that underlies clinical depression and anxiety and a category of physical illness called diseases of adaptation (or maladaptation): essential hypertension, chronic lower back pain, tension headaches, and a host of other illnesses that result from holding tension for long periods of time.

What is going on when Americans say they are experiencing worries about the future of their nation? What are they concerned about? Judging by lawn signs in my neighborhood, many are concerned about hate, saying it has no home here. Another simply says, “Make America kind again.” (Was it truly ever this way, really?) Another neighbor still has his Trump-Pence sign displayed but I noticed that he moved it up out of arm's reach on the tree where it hangs.

By my reading, a number of things are conspiring to make the future worrisome, not only for Americans, but also for people in most of the western democracies. All of the factors below work together to make life especially challenging right now.

  • Americans are increasingly segregated, the affluent living in their bubbles, all others living in theirs. This contributes to what UC Berkely professor, Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, calls an “empathy wall,” an obstacle which, she says, “can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs.” (I wrote a blog about the effects of class segregation here.)
  • This is due, in part, to growing income inequality and an economy that increasingly favors the well-off. This leaves many people (especially working class Trump voters) feeling angry and frustrated, especially with “liberal elites." Wealth—and thus political power—is increasingly concentrated at the top, leaving many feeling they have no say in how things go for their economic lives—and increasingly, they don’t. (Real income for working people has not increased in over 30 years.)
  • The political parties are increasingly polarized. Here is Russell Hochschild: “In 1960, when a survey asked American adults whether it would ‘disturb’ them if their child married a member of the other political party, no more than 5 percent of either party answered ‘yes.’ But in 2010, 33 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Republicans answered ‘yes.’“ 
  • The right wing is moving to the right. One can easily imagine Eisenhower, Goldwater, Nixon, or even Reagan wondering what has become of his party, the party that once supported the right to collective bargaining (Eisenhower and Goldwater), huge infrastructure spending (Einsenhower), the Clean Water Act (Nixon), or gun control and raising the national debt (Reagan).

     

Of course, saying that the right is moving right causes everyone to say, “Wait a minute! Isn't the left moving to the left, too?” The answer seems to be no, but I would probably fail to convince my Trump-Pence neighbor of this.

In using the word “epidemic” in the title, I wish to draw attention to the physical consequences of chronic, unabated stress of this kind. According to the January, 2017 APA study, “The percentage of people reporting at least one health symptom because of stress rose from 71 percent to 80 percent over five months. A third of Americans have reported specific symptoms such as headaches (34 percent), feeling overwhelmed (33 percent), feeling nervous or anxious (33 percent) or feeling depressed or sad (32 percent).”

What is the first casualty of chronic stress? Confidence. The second is goodwill. We just don't have the patience we once did. But a third consequence is what concerns me the most, both as a father and as a citizen. It is our ability to solve problems together.

When a society is faced with political stress, the psychological forces associated with effective stress management—careful listening, mindful awareness of one's own reactions, emotional self-regulation, thoughtful choice of response, etc. give way to means of thinking that are more reflective of feelings than with rationality. As HL Mencken famously said, “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” 

In addressing a group of 85 Emergency Physicians last week, Curt Woolford and I talked about the dangers of chronic, unabated stress: their profession is at the very top of all medical specialities with respect to stressfulness and burnout. We told them what I would tell every American right now: do everything you can to alleviate the worst effects of stress and do everything you can to enhance your ability to remain upbeat and positive in this challenging world. Your psychological and mental health will benefit and so will our society. To wit:

Do

  • Get enough sleep
  • Exercise
  • Spend daily time in meditation, prayer, anything to calm yourself
  • Talk to your neighbors

Don't

  • Watch much TV (especially Fox and MSNBC)
  • Become a couch potato
  • Act out your emotions
  • Isolate yourself socially