According to new research published in the journal, around the 2020 election, people experienced decreased sleep quantity and efficiency, linked to increased stress, negative mood and alcohol consumption sleep health.
“My experience with politics is anecdotal in that it has become increasingly divisive over the past 10 to 15 years, and pretty much throughout my life. So I was personally curious to see if and how this increasing division is affecting our emotional well-being and sleep,” said study author Tony Cunningham, faculty member and director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School .
“From a scientific perspective, the effect of major sociopolitical events on aspects of mental health and well-being is one of those things that you would think would be well researched, but when I looked at the literature it was really just from a few groundbreaking studies, and ours is.” the first to link changes in emotional well-being on election day to changes in sleep later on election night.”
“Ultimately, we were really interested in the potential for global effects,” explains the researcher. “As globalization has increased and we have become more connected via the internet, we have wondered if the lines between communities and nations are blurring in the impact of this major event.”
The study was conducted as part of a larger investigation into the psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which collected data before and after the 2020 US elections. The study included both US and non-US citizens with a total of 543 participants aged 18 to 90 years.
Participants received daily polls in the period leading up to the election (October 1-13) and in the days surrounding the election (October 30-November 12). The surveys, conducted in the mornings, asked participants to rate their sleep the previous night by listing their bedtimes, the time it took to fall asleep, the number of times they woke up during the night, the time they were awake in the morning, and the time they spent during the day spent napping, recorded. They also reported on the previous night’s alcohol consumption. Mood was assessed using a validated questionnaire as well as questions from a standard depression screening tool.
The researchers found that October stress levels were the same for both US and non-US participants but increased sharply before and on election day, with US participants reporting higher stress levels than non-US participants. For US participants, alcohol consumption increased significantly on three specific days: Halloween, Election Day, and November 7th. In contrast, among non-US participants who drank alcohol, there was no change in alcohol consumption in November.
In addition to increased alcohol consumption, election day also elicited increased stress and negative affect among US participants, which in turn was associated with decreased sleep amount and sleep efficiency.
“The most relevant point may be the relationship between daytime mood and subsequent sleep,” Cunningham told PsyPost. “We found that deteriorated mood and emotional well-being during the day correlated with poorer sleep later in the evening. While it has been linked to choice in this case, this is probably true on a daily basis – if we have bad days, we may sleep worse at night, although further research should validate this.
“However, in relation to future elections, I think this study speaks to the need to realize how we and others may be affected by these extremely stressful events. While we may feel compelled to keep up to date with all the news, it may be in the best interests of our sleep and mental health to take a break and take care of ourselves.”
The researchers found that once the November 7 election was officially declared, stress levels decreased in both US and non-US participants> However, changes in stress levels were significantly larger in US participants.
“What was most surprising to me was that these data were part of a larger study examining the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on sleep and emotional well-being,” Cunningham said. “While we have definitely seen movement in these measures over the course of the pandemic, at no point in our COVID-19 data collection have we seen changes anywhere near as dramatic as in the weeks surrounding the election.”
“I think that speaks largely to how we perceived the two events: the stress related to the pandemic was much more chronic with no clear end in sight (even today), while the stress related to the election much more acute.”
The findings are consistent with previous research that found people in the United States tended to report higher levels of depressive symptoms and anxiety in the run-up to the 2020 election. Similar results were observed for the 2016 election.
But the study, like all research, comes with some caveats.
“By far the biggest limitation of the study is the lack of sample diversity,” Cunningham said. “Although we were able to recruit both a US and an international sample, the vast majority of the sample consisted of white, liberal women from the Northeastern United States. This study should be conducted with an emphasis on recruiting a much more diverse sample by race, ethnicity, sex and gender, and across the political spectrum.”
“Other questions worth pursuing are whether pre-election day sleep patterns affect mood and stress on election day, as the relationship between these is thought to be mutual. This, too, was an investigation into just one major socio-political event. It would be interesting to learn more about what characteristics of an event are capable of creating this type of impact, especially of a global scale (e.g. number of people involved, tone, potential impact, etc.)”
“The data collection associated with this study also took place in the context of COVID-19 prior to vaccination,” added Cunningham. “Consistent with what we mentioned above, given the simultaneous chronic stress we were all experiencing at the time related to the early days of the pandemic, it was actually surprising to see as much movement into these measures as we did. Future research should definitely follow up to determine how much the context of the pandemic may have influenced our findings.”
The study “How the 2020 US Presidential Election Affected Sleep and Its Relationship to Public Sentiment and Alcohol Consumption” was conducted by Tony J. Cunningham, Eric C. Fields, Dan Denis, PhD, Ryan Bottary, Robert Stickgold and Elizabeth A Kensinger.