Merely expecting to feel stressed has a negative effect on our mood

By Emily Reynolds

Elections can be stressful. Research has looked into the distress of Americans when Trump was elected, and elections have also been linked to an increase in anxiety and stress, and poorer sleep quality. Most of this research, however, has looked at what happens after an election result, not before.

A new study takes a different look, asking how the approach of an election result can impact people’s mental health. Writing in the International Journal of Psychology, a team from North Carolina State University finds that simply anticipating election stress has a negative effect on our mood.

The study took place in 2018, starting just before a midterm election in the US; election day was November 6th, and the study took place between October 15th and November 13th. Participants first rated their own political ideology, and indicated whether they were identified as a Republican, Democrat, or something else. They then took part in a daily survey every day for the next 29 days.

Each day, participants indicated how negative they were feeling on a scale from 1 to 5. Negative mood was separated into five different feelings: upset, hostile, ashamed, nervous and afraid. They then indicated how likely it was they would experience stress related to the midterm in the next 24 hours, again on a scale from 1 to 5. Finally, participants indicated whether or not they had been exposed to information about the midterms that day via TV, newspaper, and other forums.

As expected, there was a significant association between anticipated election-related stress and negative mood: on days when people indicated that they were highly likely to experience stress around the midterms, their level of negative feeling was higher than on days when they did not expect to experience much stress. People were more likely to anticipate stress before the election and on election day than after election day. Conservatives also anticipated experiencing higher levels of election-related stress than liberals, which the team believes has something to do with the “Blue wave” that was taking place in the US at the time.

The team writes this is the first evidence linking an anticipatory form of stress around elections to negative mood, and adds to evidence that simply anticipating future stressors can be as impactful as experiencing those stressors directly. Anticipatory stress is also likely to be present in other areas of life, too, whether political or personal: future research could explore how this manifests itself in different domains.

If this is the case for all elections, then resources could be put in place to help people deal with their anxiety and stress. Overall, the study suggests that such feelings could have a serious impact on people’s wellbeing — and that anticipatory stress, around elections or other big events, should be taken seriously.

Anticipatory stress during an election: A daily diary study

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest