By Sophie Bethune
Faced with one of the most adversarial elections in recent history and daily coverage of the presidential election dominating every form of mass media, last summer the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America team heard anecdotally from many people feeling stressed about the election and its anticipated aftermath. For 10 years, APA has been conducting Stress in America, an annual survey that seeks to examine American stress levels, what’s causing stress and its impact on our lives, health and relationships. In 2016, based on these anecdotal reports we added a new question to the survey to look at whether the 2016 presidential election was a significant cause of stress.
We discovered that 52 percent of respondents said that they were stressed about the election putting this in the same realm as other frequently cited stressors such as work, money and the economy. We were pretty sure there was a story to be told and an opportunity to share psychological messages about how to effectively manage stress. We were even more motivated to pursue the story when we discovered that there was no statistical difference between registered Republicans and Democrats – both sides of the political aisle were equally likely to say that the election was causing them stress.
However, our survey results weren’t scheduled to be released until 2017 – long after the election. When we started the survey in 2006, our aim was to draw attention to the dangers of chronic stress, start a conversation about mind body health, provide practical advice to the public and outline the ways that psychologists can help. This was the first time that we had asked about stress related to an election. For the first time in 10 years, we decided to release data early and share the election stress story while it was still relevant. Unlike in previous years when we’ve released results with press lunches, town hall meetings and media webinars, we simply issued a press release, a brief report and infographics providing them in advance under embargo to a handful of reporters that we’d worked with in the past.
What followed was three weeks of intense media coverage. Reporter after reporter called us and commented that what drew them to this story was their own stress and anxiety – the result of months of covering the campaign trail. Our two psychologist spokespeople were in heavy demand, offering advice to the public about how to manage stress related to the election. They became the most experienced on-camera spokespeople at our organization appearing on the Today Show, CNN, NBC Nightly News and MSNBC and other news channels. Major media outlets including the Washington Post, New York Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, NPR, Bloomberg and Fox News covered the story. And local and national radio covered it nationwide.
By week two the story was evolving. The same journalists who initially covered the story came back to us for a second round of stories. International outlets started requesting interviews and our psychologists spoke to outlets in Brazil, the UK, Canada, Finland, Ukraine, China and elsewhere. All told APA’s election stress data and health messages generated more than 4,000 media hits, the equivalent of more than $10.5 million in advertising value.
Of course, following the election the stories continued. The storylines became more detailed: How can parents talk to their children about the election results? How are therapists feeling? Has there been an increase in people seeking therapy? Can you offer advice for people disappointed or angry at the results? Advice on how to heal family rifts? How are stress levels since the election? We haven’t been able to answer everything. We don’t yet have new data on which to rely on, though our psychologists can always offer advice on how to deal with disappointment or anxiety or how to talk to children in age- appropriate ways or handle conflict.
Next month this will change. We are fielding an updated survey to gauge how people are feeling post -election. We plan to release results in mid-February, with the rest of our survey data. At that point, our psychologists will be able to answer that most frequently asked question – whether Americans are feeling significant stress about the political climate now that the election is over, and offer advice on what to do if you become overwhelmed by stress.
Sophie Bethune is director of public relations and special projects at the American Psychological Association.
Dr. Lynn Bufka, APA’s Associate Executive Director for Practice Research and Policy, and one of APA’s two primary psychologist spokespeople on election stress will be addressing WWPR’s Annual Meeting on January 12. She’ll outline the findings and provide advice on how to manage stress in your work and lives in 2017.