Global Effects: New Research Indicates That Political Events Can Impact Sleep

Bad Sleep Angry Woman

Participants from both the United States and other countries reported missing sleep in the run-up to the election.

A study discovered a connection between elections and sleep, alcohol consumption, and general public mood.

Major societal and political events can have a significant influence on psychological health, as well as sleep and emotional well-being. While conventional wisdom holds that highly anticipated events, such as elections, may cause stress and disrupt well-being, little research has been published to investigate this connection.

Researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and colleagues have now shown how major sociopolitical events can have global effects on sleep that are associated with significant changes in the general population’s mood, well-being, and alcohol consumption. The findings, which were published in the journal Sleep Health of the National Sleep Foundation, demonstrate how divisive political events have a detrimental impact on a broad range of factors relating 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, Ph.D., 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.”

The team surveyed 437 participants in the United States and 106 international participants daily between October 1-13, 2020 (before the election) and October 30-November 12, 2020 (days surrounding the election) as part of a larger study investigating the sleep and psychological consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants reported their sleep duration and quality, alcohol consumption, and subjective overall stress experience. Their replies demonstrated decreased sleep quantity and efficiency, as well as increased stress, negative mood, and increased alcohol consumption in the period surrounding the election. While similar findings were seen at a lower level in non-US participants, worsening health habits were only shown to be significantly correlated with mood and stress among US residents.

The daily surveys—delivered each morning at 8:00 am 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 on the days around the election. On Election night itself, U.S. participants reported waking up frequently during the night and experiencing poorer sleep efficiency.

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, Saturday, November 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 November 3 election. Stress levels dropped dramatically once the election was officially called on November 7. 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 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.

“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 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.”

Reference: “How the 2020 US Presidential election impacted sleep and its relationship to public mood and alcohol consumption” by Tony J. Cunningham, Ph.D., Eric C. Fields, Ph.D., Dan Denis, Ph.D., Ryan Bottary, Ph.D., Robert Stickgold, Ph.D. and Elizabeth A. Kensinger, Ph.D., 22 October 2022, Sleep Health.
DOI: 10.1016/j.sleh.2022.08.009

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, Boston College, and the Sleep Research Society Foundation.

The authors reported no financial or non-financial conflicts of interest to report in relation to this work.

2 Comments on "Global Effects: New Research Indicates That Political Events Can Impact Sleep"

  1. They needed a “study” to figure this out? Something that everybody else already knows?

  2. Captain Obvious was left off the list of authors.

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