By |Published On: June 5th, 2024|Categories: Media Psychology, Pam Rutledge, School of Psychology, Social Media, Stress|

Eight strategies to build resilience and keep your cool during the elections.


  • Political conflict keeps stress hormones high with adverse psychological and physical consequences.
  • Social media encourages partisanship and undermines the motivation to discern fact from fiction.
  • Fear of social rejection can increase political group compliance and support for misinformation.
  • Limiting exposure and seeking balanced information sources can reduce stress during election season.

Political polarization has worsened to the point where 40 percent of Americans describe politics as a chronic stressor, blaming it for increased depression and anxiety, loss of sleep, greater impulsivity, such as posting social media comments they later regret, and damage to relationships with family and friends (Smith and colleagues, 2019). We are on the cusp of election season, where political polarization and misinformation are frequent levers to incite fearanger, and hatred, inundating us with media coverage that undermines our well-being. How do we protect ourselves from the uncertainty and emotional stress of politics and still show up to vote?

Information Seeking as a Coping Strategy

Uncertainty can feel dangerous. The brain is hardwired to pay attention to any potentially hazardous situation as a survival response. One way we deal with uncertainty is by getting more information. In an environment of limitless content and data and no easy means of telling evidence from opinion, information seeking can quickly turn obsessive. Ironically, continuously surfing through more news that makes us feel anxious and frustrated in the first place doesn’t help.

We’ve had lots of practice doomscrolling during the past few years, between the loss, fear, and social and economic challenges during the pandemic, exacerbated by the continuing conflict filling social media, such as the Ukraine war, the Israel-Hamas war, and social unrest. Parsing through the flood of information, misinformation, and whipsawing threat created a psychological version of long COVID, leaving us in a state of chronic stress, in a perpetual orange alert.

Digital Media Opened the Flood Gates to Information

Digital media, peer-to-peer connectivity, and instant and unlimited access to the Internet play a significant role in news consumption, with social media used as the news source for a frighteningly high percentage of users: 53 percent of X-Twitter users, 43 percent of Facebook users, 43 percent of TikTok users, 34 percent of Instagram users (Pew Research Center, 2023, November 15). Social media platforms have amplified mis- and disinformation with little ability to enforce accuracy or accountability. Social media has pulled users away from mainstream sources, so traditional news platforms have become increasingly partisan to satisfy target audiences and stay economically viable. Competing news versions may attract audiences, but it comes at the longer-term cost of trust.

On the viewer side, increased anxiety and cognitive dissonance are driving people to selectively seek sources that make them feel better and avoid those that don’t. As the chasm between political groups grows, news and misinformation become forms of social capital. Being part of a group makes people feel safer, and the world seems simpler, reducing it to binary constructs: us-them, in-out, right-wrong. Viewer criteria shift from accuracy to loyalty, making the distribution of misinformation a form of social capital that affirms belonging and loyalty (Morrison and Ybarra, 2009).

The Danger of Identity Politics

When misinformation and conspiracy theories become symbols of tribal allegiance, it is impossible to have a rational discussion or healthy debate over policy differences. Compromise becomes impossible when challenges to policies and legal structures are experienced as attacks on ego, identity, and beliefs. In our current orange alert state, affiliation increasingly takes precedence over reality.

Open disagreement puts you at risk of rejection from your family, friends, and or political party. The threat of social expulsion has been used to exact compliance throughout history (Cialdini and Trost, 1998). Social rejection is a significant source of stress, causing physical pain. Rejection activates the same brain areas as when we experience bodily discomfort. Unlimited information channels, social pressures to conform, and the cognitive discomfort of processing conflicting information all reduce the motivation to fact-check. The firehose of information makes it impossible to evaluate source accuracy, driving people to rely on “group-approved” pundits who benefit from further fueling distrust in any opposing views, from traditional media sources and trained experts to empirical evidence.

Hypervigilance as a Form of Long COVID

A hostile political and social environment can cause uncertainty as negative emotions interfere with our ability to evaluate, avoid, or minimize potential threats. Ambiguity impairs the brain’s ability to anticipate outcomes; we cannot adapt. Without these anticipatory processes, we also lose our belief that we can be effective. This loss of agency leads to an increased sense of helplessness, further increasing anxiety (Grupe and Nitschke, 2013).

Chronic Stress Makes Us Vulnerable to Political Manipulation

Sustained anxiety rewires the brain, creating a state of hypervigilance. This heightened sensitivity to threat is linked with increased political polarization as we attempt to navigate fear and anger to feel more in control. Campaigns that blame others as threats to ‘our way of life’ validate our worries, heighten our anxiety, and increase our internal need for certainty. This makes us susceptible to politicians and bad actors who offer easy solutions as moral superiority. That need to join a tribe to feel safe increases the likelihood of accepting biased political information and conspiracy theories, further deepening the ‘us-them’ gap (Fraser colleagues, 2022; Sarjan and Yajurvedi, 2018).

The cost to social systems is enormous, as we’ve seen. What is lurking under the surface is all the physiological and psychological fallout that comes with chronic stress, such as diminished immune function and an imbalance in neural communication related to cognitive function, anxiety, and mood (McEwen, 2017). The result is continued conflict and an increasing burden on the healthcare system.

Eight Tips for Getting Through the Elections

The volume of information far outpaces our ability to keep up, much less figure out what’s true, and adds to our anxiety, creating a downward emotional spiral. This downward spiral stops when we act with intention and counteract our innate tendencies, by demanding self-awareness and self-regulation. Yes, that is far easier said than done. It takes significant cognitive energy to overcome behavior’s emotional drivers and take back our news feeds. Here are some tips:

  1. Check yourself, watching for political fatigue symptoms, such as anxiety, higher blood pressure, mood changes, and sleep disturbances. These are signs that you need to make changes.
  2. Monitor how you engage with political content. Keep a journal for a few days to identify your consumption and emotional patterns and determine if politics interfere with your life or cause problems in your relationships. You have to know what’s not working to make changes for the better.
  3. Restrict your content to reputable sources and confirm the validity of information to avoid reacting emotionally or sharing misinformation. Save social media for what it’s best at—entertainment and socializing.
  4. Be conscious of where and how you share your opinions. If you can’t discuss something with colleagues or family without getting emotional, make political talk off-limits.
  5. Be curious about other points of view. You may believe you’re right, but you can’t change how other people think or feel without understanding their perspectives and where the disagreements lie.
  6. Watch out for doomscrolling and content that activates negative emotions. If all politics gets you down but you want to know what’s going on, front-load happy stuff to provide an emotional buffer and limit the time you spend.
  7. Step away to help reset your brain. Take a deep breath, grab a moment of mindfulness, walk in nature, or just put down your device for a few moments. Taking a break or trying deep breathing relaxes the vagal nerve and will help you be more analytical and less emotional.
  8. Watch media content with a critical eye to see when and how it targets your emotions, diminishes your cognitive resistance, and makes you vulnerable to manipulation.

Put Your Mental Health Before Politics

You don’t have to put your head in the sand or ignore important events during the election season. Good citizenship means taking the time to be informed and to vote. However, you can pay more attention to what you find valuable and necessary and avoid what you find emotionally activating. This shift will increase your emotional regulation skills and make you more effective in other aspects of your life, from relationships and work to political participation. Anger and fear impair your ability to think rationally and strategically. More importantly, they diminish your empathy and compassion for others and hamper your ability to hear different points of view. These are qualities we badly need right now.

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Fraser, T., Aldrich, D. P., Panagopoulos, C., Hummel, D., & Kim, D. (2022). The harmful effects of partisan polarization on health. PNAS Nexus, 1(1).

Grupe, D. W., & Nitschke, J. B. (2013). Uncertainty and anticipation in anxiety: An integrated neurobiological and psychological perspective. Nat Rev Neurosci, 14(7), 488-501.

McEwen, B. S. (2017). Neurobiological and systemic effects of chronic stress. Chronic Stress (Thousand Oaks), 1

Morrison, K. R., & Ybarra, O. (2009). Symbolic threat and social dominance among liberals and conservatives: Sdo reflects conformity to political values. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39(6), 1039-1052.

Pew Research Center. (2023, November 15). Social media and news fact sheet: News consumption by social media site.

About the Author: Pam Rutledge

Pamela Rutledge, PhD, is a scholar-practitioner, integrating her expertise in media psychology with 20+ years as a media producer. A member of the faculty at Fielding Graduate University since 2008, Dr. Rutledge teaches in the areas of brand psychology, audience engagement and narrative meaning. Dr. Rutledge consults with entertainment companies, such as 20th Century Fox Films and Warner Bros., on data strategies and audience narratives. Dr. Rutledge has published both academic and popular work, including a text on positive psychology and psychological appeal for fans of the Twilight Saga and resilience in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She has also written book chapters on meaning-making and fandom, transmedia narrative engagement, and positive media psychology. She authors “Positively Media” for Psychology Today and is also a frequent expert source on media use and popular culture for media outlets such as The NY Times, The BBC World and ABC News. She holds a PhD and an MBA.

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