Psychologists seeing more stress in patients postelection

New APA Stress in America™ survey shows many Americans stressed about future of nation.

By Sophie Bethune and Jewel Edwards-Ashman

Usually, entering a new year brings about feelings of optimism and enthusiasm for a fresh start.  This year, however, data show that Americans are feeling more stressed than ever.

On Feb. 15, the American Psychological Association released its report "Stress in America™: Coping with Change" showing that two-thirds of Americans say they are stressed about the future of our nation.

“The stress we’re seeing around political issues is deeply concerning, because it’s hard for Americans to get away from it,” said Katherine C. Nordal, PhD, APA’s executive director for professional practice. “We’re surrounded by conversations, news and social media that constantly remind us of the issues that are stressing us the most.”

The data in APA’s report appears to be in line with what psychologists are experiencing in their own practices. Illinois-based practitioner Nancy Molitor, PhD, says she has never seen this kind of emotional response to an election outcome in her 28 years of practice.

“I’ve seen a real upward trend in anxiety and I have people who have developed insomnia. People who are getting into arguments with family members. People who are feeling very short-tempered and argumentative. People feeling depressed and hopeless. The volatility that I’m seeing is just ramping up and almost every one of my patients is coming in and talking about the political climate,” Molitor says.

Most of Molitor’s clients consider themselves Democrats, with about 20 percent saying they voted for President Donald Trump. Still, she says, most of her clients are not at peace, no matter how they voted.

Michael Butz, PhD, who has a private practice and works at St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings, Montana, sees a diverse group of patients who travel from as far as Seattle and Denver to receive care at St. Vincent. Butz and his colleagues have talked frequently about dealing with the rising number of clients who have strong feelings about the outcome of the election and direction of the country.

“We’re taught as professionals to use reason and logic. Patients will espouse one position or another. It’s important to let them admit their beliefs without any qualifiers on our end. At the same time, it becomes very difficult,” Butz says. “Is it our job as psychologists to encourage our clientele to become good citizens? In many cases, that’s not what they’re coming to see us for,” he adds.

Molitor agreed that it can be hard to stay neutral. Working as a therapist is pretty difficult right now because psychologists are also affected by what’s happening in their communities and the world. That’s why self-care is crucial during this time, Molitor says.

“I’m human, too. I love NPR. I love my newspapers. But I have to limit my own ‘media diet’ to be in a good place. I have to keep reminding myself to check my own temperature before I go to work."

Stress in America survey findings

The APA poll conducted in January found that the current political climate is a very or somewhat significant source of stress for more than half of Americans (57 percent). Nearly half (49 percent) say the same about the outcome of the election.

While Democrats were more likely than Republicans (72 percent vs. 26 percent) to report the outcome of the 2016 presidential election as a significant source of stress, a majority of Republicans (59 percent) said the future of the nation was a significant source of stress for them, compared with 76 percent of Democrats.

These results come on the heels of an APA survey, conducted by Harris Poll last August among 3,511 adults. The August survey found that 52 percent of Americans reported that the presidential election was a significant source of stress. The latest survey was conducted online by Harris Poll in early January 2017, among 1,019 adults ages 18+ who reside in the U.S.

This marks the 10-year anniversary of the Stress in America report, part one of a two-part release. APA released part two on Feb. 23, highlighting how technology use affects stress among Americans.

To read the full Stress in America report and access a new patient resource on managing stress related to political change, visit the Stress in America™ Press Room.

Join the conversation about stress on Twitter by following @APAHelpCenter and #stressAPA.