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A new study out of Boston suggests that polarizing political events like elections can adversely affect our sleep and emotional well-being. 

Shocking, we know.

The study substantiates the impact of major political events on sleep and how it affects the public’s mood, well-being, and alcohol consumption.

Researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) published the findings in the National Sleep Foundation’s journal Sleep Health.

“This is the first study to find that there is a relationship between the previously reported changes in Election Day public mood and sleep the night of the election,” said author Tony Cunningham, director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at BIDMC. “Moreover, it is not just that elections may influence sleep, but evidence suggests that sleep may influence civic engagement and participation in elections as well. Thus, if the relationship between sleep and elections is also bidirectional, it will be important for future research to determine how public mood and stress effects on sleep leading up to an election may affect or even alter its outcome.”

The team surveyed 437 participants in the United States and 106 international participants daily between Oct. 1–13, 2020 (before the election) and Oct. 30–Nov. 12, 2020 (days surrounding the Nov. 3 U.S. election) as part of a larger study exploring the sleep and psychological repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Participants recorded their duration and quality of sleep, alcohol consumption, and subjective experience of overall stress. Their responses showed they were getting less sleep coupled with heightened stress, negative mood, and alcohol use in the days surrounding the election. While these results were observed at a lower level in non-U.S. participants, less-than-ideal health habits were significantly correlated with mood and stress only among U.S. residents.

The daily surveys asked respondents to assess the previous night’s sleep by recording their bedtimes, time required to fall asleep, number of awakenings through the night, morning wake time, and time spent napping during the day. They also recorded the previous night’s alcohol consumption. In addition, their mood was assessed using a validated questionnaire and questions from a standard depression screening tool. Participants reported daily at 8 a.m. local time.

Concerning sleep, both U.S. and non-U.S. participants reported losing sleep in the lead-up to the election; however, U.S. respondents had significantly less time in bed on the days around the election. On election night, U.S. participants reported waking up frequently during the night and experiencing poorer sleep efficiency.

“It is unlikely that these findings will come as a shock to many given the political turbulence of the last several years,” said Cunningham. “Our results likely mirror many of our own experiences surrounding highly stressful events, and we felt this was an opportunity to scientifically validate these assumptions.” He goes on to say, “It is not just that elections may influence sleep, but evidence suggests that sleep may influence civic engagement and participation in elections as well.”

U.S. participants who reported drinking alcohol significantly increased consumption on three specific days during the assessment period: Halloween, Election Day, and Nov 7, the day more media outlets called the election. 

Among non-U.S. participants, there was no change in alcohol consumption over the November assessment period.

When the researchers looked at how these changes in behavior affected the mood and well-being of U.S participants, they found significant links between sleep and drinking, stress, negative mood, and depression.

Analysis revealed that stress levels were mostly consistent for both U.S. and non-U.S. participants in the assessment period in early October. Still, a sharp rise in stress was reported for both groups in the days leading up to the Nov. 3 election. However, stress levels dropped dramatically on Nov. 7 when the election was officially called. This pattern held for both U.S. and non-U.S. residents, but changes in stress levels were significantly greater in U.S. participants.

U.S. participants reported a similar pattern of depression that their non-U.S. counterparts did not experience. And non-U.S. participants reported significant decreases in negative mood and depression the day after the election was called.

“The 2020 election took place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Cunningham. “Despite the chronic stress experienced during that time, the acute stress of the election still had clear impacts on mood and sleep. As such, research exploring the impact of the pandemic should also consider other overlapping, acute stressors that may exert their own influence to avoid inappropriately attributing effects to the pandemic.”

Further research with a more representative and diverse sample is needed to confirm the impacts of political stress on the public’s mood and sleep for the general public. The authors stated that the interpretation of their results is limited in that the experience of most participants’ stress and subsequent responses were dependent on their preferred political candidate.

While elections are important, they’re not worth sacrificing your health for! Take a deep breath and remember that the one actually in control is never on a ballot and doesn’t belong to any political party. These events are important, but they’re not worth sacrificing your health for!