A new study suggests that divisive political events like elections can negatively affect one’s sleep and emotional well-being, and increase alcohol consumption.
Led by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the findings were published 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 corresponding 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.”
As part of a larger study exploring the sleep and psychological repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, 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). Participants reported on 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-U.S. participants, worsening health habits were significantly correlated with mood and stress only among U.S. residents.
“It is unlikely that these findings will come as 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.”
The daily surveys — delivered each day at 8 a.m. 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. Mood was assessed using a validated questionnaire as well as questions from a standard depression screening tool.
With regard to sleep, both U.S. and non-U.S. participants reported losing sleep in the run-up to the election; however, U.S. respondents had significantly less time in bed in the days around the election. On election night itself, U.S. participants reported waking up frequently during the night and experiencing poorer sleep efficiency.
“It is not just that elections may influence sleep, but evidence suggests that sleep may influence civic engagement and participation in elections as well.”
— Tony Cunningham, director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at BIDMC
U.S. 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, Nov. 7. Among non-U.S. participants, there was no change in alcohol consumption over the November assessment period.
When the scientists looked at how these changes in behavior may have affected 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 largely consistent for both U.S. and non-U.S. 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 Nov. 3 election. Stress levels dropped dramatically once the election was officially called Nov. 7. This pattern held for both U.S. and non-U.S. residence, but changes in stress levels were significantly greater in U.S. participants.
U.S. participants reported a similar pattern with depression that their non-U.S. counterparts did not experience; however, non-U.S. participants reported significant decreases in negative mood and depression the day after the election was called.
The authors emphasize that the interpretation of their results are 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 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.”
Co-authors include senior author Elizabeth A. Kensinger of Boston College, Eric C. Fields of Brandeis University, Dan Denis of University of Notre Dame, Ryan Bottary of Harvard Medical School, and Robert Stickgold of BIDMC.
This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (grants T32 HL007901, T32 NS007292), Boston College and the Sleep Research Society Foundation.