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New Research Suggests Political Events Impact Sleep

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Major political and societal events can have dramatic impacts on psychological health and impact sleep and emotional well-being. While conventional wisdom suggests these highly anticipated events, such as elections, can cause stress and disrupt well-being, little research has been published exploring this relationship.

Now, researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and colleagues show how major sociopolitical events can have global impacts on sleep that are associated with significant fluctuations in the public’s collective mood, well-being, and alcohol consumption. The findings, published in the National Sleep Foundation’s journal Sleep Health show that divisive political events negatively influenced a wide variety of factors related to the public mood.

‘It is unlikely that these findings will come as shock to many given the political turbulence of the last several years,’ said corresponding author Tony Cunningham, PhD, director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at BIDMC. ‘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.’

As part of a larger study exploring the sleep and psychological repercussions of the Covid pandemic, the team surveyed 437 participants in the US and 106 international participants daily between 1st–13th October 2020 (before the election) and 30th October 30–12th November 2020 (days surrounding the 3rd November US election).

Participants reported their duration and quality of sleep, alcohol consumption and subjective experience of overall stress. Their responses revealed reduced sleep quantity and efficiency coupled with heightened stress, negative mood and alcohol use in the period surrounding the election. While these results were observed at a lower level in non-US participants, worsening health habits were significantly correlated with mood and stress only among US residents.

The daily surveys – delivered each morning at 8:00am local time – 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. The mood was assessed using a validated questionnaire as well as questions from a standard depression screening tool.

With regard to sleep, both US and non-US participants reported losing sleep in the run-up to the election; however, US respondents had significantly less time in bed in the days around the election. On Election night itself, US participants reported waking up frequently during the night and experiencing poorer sleep efficiency.

US participants who ever reported drinking alcohol significantly increased consumption on three days during the assessment period: Halloween, Election Day and the day the election was called by more media outlets, Saturday, 7th November. Among non-US participants, there was no change in alcohol consumption over the November assessment period.

When the scientists looked at how these changes in behaviour may have affected the mood and well-being of US participants, they found significant links between sleep and drinking, stress, negative mood, and depression.

Analysis revealed that stress levels were largely consistent for both US and non-US participants in the assessment period in early October, but there was a sharp rise in reported stress for both groups in the days leading up to the 3rd November election. Stress levels dropped dramatically once the election was officially called on 7th November. This pattern held for both US and non-US 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-US counterparts did not experience; however, non-U.S. participants reported significant decreases in negative mood and depression the day after the election was called.

‘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,’ Cunningham said. ‘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 sleep leading up to an election may affect or even alter its outcome.’

The authors emphasize that the interpretation of their results is limited in that the experience of the majority of participants was the buildup of election stress and subsequent response dependent on their preferred political candidate. Further research with a more representative and diverse sample is needed to confirm the impacts of political stress on the public mood and sleep for the general public.

‘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.’

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is a patient care, teaching and research affiliate of Harvard Medical School and consistently ranks as a national leader among independent hospitals in National Institutes of Health funding. BIDMC is the official hospital of the Boston Red Sox.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is a part of Beth Israel Lahey Health, a healthcare system that brings together academic medical centres and teaching hospitals, community and speciality hospitals, more than 4,800 physicians and 36,000 employees in a shared mission to expand access to great care and advance the science and practice of medicine through groundbreaking research and education.

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