3 Questions: A Neuroscientist on Experiencing Stress about Elections

Lisa Shin, who studies PTSD, talks about the difference between trauma and stress and what to do about it

A man under stress clenching his head. Lisa Shin, who studies PTSD, talks about the difference between trauma and stress and what to do about it

For many people in these increasingly polarized political times, the impending elections this year are a source of stress and anxiety. It’s not just in our heads, either.

A study this week found that hospitalization for acute cardiovascular disease—often related to stress—were 1.62 times higher in the two days following the 2016 presidential election than in the same two-day period the week prior. “Transiently heightened cardiovascular risk around the 2016 election may be attributable to sociopolitical stress,” the study authors wrote.

Lisa Shin, a professor of psychology, researches brain function and cognitive processing in patients with anxiety disorders, especially post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Tufts Now talked with Shin about how stress about the upcoming presidential election is affecting some people.

Tufts Now: Do the feelings of fear and upset that people are experiencing about the upcoming elections fit definitions of trauma?

Lisa Shin: When researchers in clinical psychology and psychiatry use the term “psychological trauma,” they usually mean an event or events that threaten serious injury or death. This definition comes from the major diagnostic manual used in the field, the DSM5.

Lisa ShinLisa Shin
The unpleasant arousal and emotions surrounding the election may better be described as stress in most cases, although it’s true that we are experiencing an election on top of deadly pandemics of COVID-19 and racism, so trauma could be apt in many cases.  

What happens when people experience it?

Chronic stress is unpleasant and could be harmful over time because it can increase our sympathetic nervous system responses—such as heart rate and blood pressure—stress hormone levels, and systemic inflammation, all of which can contribute to an increased risk of various major medical conditions down the road, such as cardiovascular disease.  

How can people cope with the stress? 

Fortunately, there are well-validated ways to combat the physiological and psychological effects of stress. For example, mindfulness-based stress reduction, known as MBSR, and yoga are well known to decrease self-reported stress, blood pressure, stress hormone levels, and inflammation.

Another way to cope with election-related stress might be to increase our feeling of control over the situation by voting early and encouraging others to vote, volunteering as a poll worker, or donating to one’s campaign of choice, if possible, for example.

Social support is another well-known buffer against stress. Gathering—virtually or in a physically distanced way with masks—with friends or family to engage in any of the coping techniques mentioned above could be beneficial. And finally, engaging in regular exercise and maintaining a healthful diet can also minimize the negative impact of the physiological effects of stress.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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