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New studies shed light on election-related stress

A new study from North Carolina State University finds that anticipating future stress related to political elections can affect people’s emotional well-being before anything has even happened. But a related study shows that education can help protect people against those stresses — even for individuals who are actively engaged in the political process.

“We know people can feel stress in anticipation of an event, and we know elections can be stressful for people,” says Shevaun Neupert, senior author of both studies and a professor of psychology at NC State. “We wanted to learn more about how much stress people feel leading up to an election, and what factors contribute to that stress. Ultimately, we wanted to get insights that can be used to help people manage these stresses.”

“In the first study, we wanted to learn how — if at all — anticipating election stress in the near future affected people’s emotional well-being in the moment,” says Xianghe Zhu, first author of that study and a postdoctoral researcher at Florida State University who worked on the research while a graduate student at NC State. “Does anything moderate that anticipated stress and how people respond to it?”

“Even if you’re not politically active, news and events related to major elections are unavoidable,” says Emily Smith, co-author of the second study and a postdoctoral researcher at NC State. “Our second study addresses questions such as whether politically active people are more likely to have stressful experiences during election season. As it turns out, the answer is complicated.”

Both studies draw on data collected from 140 adults from across the United States. These study participants were asked to fill out an online survey every day for 30 days, from Oct. 15 to Nov. 13, 2018 — the weeks immediately before and after the 2018 midterm elections.

The survey focused on four things. One set of questions was designed to capture the political activities a study participant engaged in that day, ranging from sharing information about political issues to working on behalf of a political candidate. A second set of questions focused on “election stress anticipation,” or the extent to which participants expected to feel stress related to the election on the following day. A third set of questions captured how often the participant had encountered things that day which could trigger election stress. These “election stressors” included things such as political ads or social media posts. Lastly, the survey included questions aimed at assessing each participant’s “negative affect” each day. For example, asking participants whether they felt upset, hostile, ashamed, nervous or afraid.

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