The Stress From Political Polarization Is Killing Us Slowly

Nearly six in 10 Americans are suffering from levels of stress on par with those experienced during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam War and World War II.

02/15/2018 14:45 EST | Updated 02/15/2018 14:46 EST

At a recent social event, I overheard a debate on politics in America. Like so many of these moments, the tete-a-tete began to creep toward midnight on the doomsday clock of political discourse over whose facts were most, well, factual. As is invariably the case, the fact-flinging reached an unfulfilling stalemate when both sides realized that their solidly anchored points were clearly slaved to one side, or the other, of America's mile-high political-opinion curtain.

As amusing as these real-world social showdowns have become, a recent report by the American Psychological Association suggests our hair-trigger political posturing may be making us sick with stress. With highly-charged and strongly-opinionated 24-hour media sources feverishly competing for our attention, nearly six in 10 Americans are suffering from levels of stress on par with those experienced during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam War and even World War II.

Regardless of which political camp one pitches their tent in, this level of stress may be a looming public health nightmare, with far-reaching impacts on both mental and physical well being.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

One of the more fascinating effects of stress is it's role in altering our decision-making behaviour. When we are stressed-out over political quarreling, we are far more apt to favour decisions that feed our appetite for instant gratification as opposed to less stimulating choices that support longer-term goals.

When the Hawaiian missile-strike warning painted the mobile phones of wide-eyed Hawaiian vacationers and state residents on the morning of January 13, one of the more trivial, yet nonetheless fascinating, points of discussion was brought to our attention by Pornhub, the colossal pornographic website. Their data showed an unprecedented 48 per cent spike above the average porn viewing levels in the 15-minutes immediately following confirmation that the warning was false.

While our sympathetic nervous system's acute stress response is a physiological marvel in terms of preparing our bodies to fight off, or escape from, the proverbially sabre tooth tiger, we must quickly deescalate our stress levels once the fanged kitty has passed us by.

One of the features of this beautiful biology is that when we experience acute stress, our brains tend to bypass those slow-reacting cerebral bits involved in logical decision-making, judgement and planning, and instead throw energy into the more emotional, short-term, reactive regions of our brain. Dopamine, for instance, the chemical neurotransmitter in our brain that motivates us to seek out reward and pleasure, gets a top-up during these times of acute stress.

Millennials and their followers may well be the most vulnerable to the health ravages of chronic stress.

While all that may sound dandy, our acute stress response, which has helped us stay alive to this point in our evolutionary history, is rather like a sprinter poised to blast from the starting blocks at any moment. It is a heightened state of emergency physiological readiness, a condition in which we were never meant to reside for more than a few moments at a time.

If we can't shake this acute stress response we will continue to experience long-term fight or flight, and this chronic stress can lead to a host of very nasty physical disease processes, including inflammation, heart disease, blood sugar disorders, immune issues, gastrointestinal diseases, cognitive impairment and memory loss.

The sensationalization of political discourse in the United States today may be exacerbating this emotional and reactive fight or flight condition, particularly in our young generations who already set the high water mark for dangerously high stress levels.

SIphotography via Getty Images

Millennials and their followers, the iGeneration, may well be the most vulnerable to the health ravages of chronic stress that accompany a daily dose of political discord. Interestingly, research indicates that heavy social media users exhibit reduced grey matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain associated with social and emotional control. Real-world face-to-face political scrums tend to be much more civil than passionate and vitriolic online brawling where there are no holds barred and judgments can slice clean down to the emotional bone.

Evidence suggests that even casual observers of polemical politics are not immune to stress and can experience a dangerous elevation in anxiety, merely from being around the conflict. Any increase in emotionally-driven habits like overeating certainly do not have a firm starting foothold in the U.S. public health profile. With nearly 40 per cent of Americans now classified as obese, and diabetes rising the fastest among Millennials whose chronic stress causes them to crave fat and sugar, the ravages of stress and its ills will be no welcome partner for the nation's momentous health challenges.

Turning off stress does not mean shutting out democratic debate. In fact, the opposite may be true. Resilience techniques can include in-person political involvement, community volunteering, fresh-air outdoor activities, endurance exercise, and especially the company of good friends and loved ones. These positive social environments have been shown to boost chemicals in the brain, like oxytocin and serotonin, which calm the fight-or-flight response and can produce a much more positive outlook. As mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn explained, "You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf".