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I have two pieces of paper hanging prominently in my office.
One says, “Don’t suffer imagined troubles.”
The other says, “Be present.”
For the past year or so, I’ve tried to live by the combined meaning of these two sayings. Instinctively, I know that they are good for my mental and physical health.
Well, I guess my instincts were right because the research I’m reading now totally backs me up…
What is anticipatory stress?
Which one of us can honestly say we’ve never experienced stress about something that might happen in the future?
There’s a name for this: anticipatory stress.
As the name implies, anticipatory stress isn’t stress in the present moment. Instead, it’s anticipating that we’re going to feel stress in the near future.
Politics and the election cycle provide the perfect opportunity for “anticipatory stress.” What if the wrong candidate is elected, and enacts policies that affect our life adversely?
These days, that’s not an unreasonable thing to anticipate.
But a recent study shows that subjecting ourselves to this particular form of anticipatory stress is really bad for our physical health.
Anticipatory stress over elections is harmful
New research from North Carolina State University finds that simply anticipating stress related to political elections causes adverse physical health effects.
“This is the first study to show that anticipatory stress related to elections can harm our health,” says Shevaun Neupert, professor of psychology at NC State.
“It’s well established that stress can adversely affect our health. This study tells us that thinking we’re going to feel stress in the near future can also adversely affect our health.”
In the study, 140 adults from across the United States filled out an online survey every day from October 15 to November 13, 2018 – the weeks immediately before and after the 2018 midterm elections.
Participants reported worse physical health on days when they also experienced high levels of anticipatory stress.
You may be questioning the reliability of a study that relies strictly on self-reporting about health.
But Professor Neupert comments that “this is a well-established and widely used approach that has consistently proven to be an objective indicator of physical health and well-being.”
How to prevent anticipatory stress
So, how do we fight anticipatory stress?
One way is called problem analysis.
For example, if you think you’re going to argue about the election with an acquaintance in the next 24 hours, you might think about why that’s going to happen, and what exactly the argument will be about.
According to the researchers, on days when study participants anticipated stress, but were also actively engaging in problem analysis, participants reported no decline in physical health.
“One reason we think problem analysis is so important is that it’s a necessary first step for many additional coping strategies,” Neupert explains. “For example, problem analysis may help people think of ways to avoid having an argument they’re anticipating, or help them think of ways to make the argument less heated.”
Another way to take down that stress may be as close as your local baseball diamond…
Head for the ball field
I’m not a big sports fan, but I do love watching my local Little League teams hit the diamond each spring.
Apparently, this could be an antidote to anticipatory stress (and stress in general) and could improve my health in other ways, too.
A recent study found that attending live sporting events (amateur as well as professional) results in higher scores on two major measurements of subjective wellbeing — life satisfaction and a sense of “life being worthwhile.”
The study was carried out by faculty from Angela Ruskin University’s School of Psychology and Sports Science.
Researchers used data from 7,209 adults ages 16 to 85 who participated in the Taking Part Survey, commissioned by the British government.
Besides finding higher scores in life satisfaction and life being worthwhile, the study found lower levels of loneliness in those who attended live sporting events.
So, instead of doom-scrolling Facebook for political news or sitting glued to the nightly news, grab a friend and catch a game!
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Combatting Election Stress: Anticipatory Coping and Daily Self-Reported Physical Health — Psychological Reports
Attending live sport improves wellbeing: Study — Science Daily
Attending live sporting events predicts subjective wellbeing and reduces loneliness — Frontiers in Public Health