Americans are Losing Sleep Over Politics

We often use the expression that we lose sleep over whatever it is that bothers or worries us. However, this is mostly a statement of hyperbole. We typically don’t stay awake at night tossing and turning for weeks or months on end. Unless it’s over American politics, that is. Or possibly a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic.

Losing Sleep Over COVID-19

According to a study of more than 1,000 people across the United States, 77 percent of Americans say they’re losing sleep amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The survey finds that anxiety regarding the virus is the number one factor in pandemic-related sleep loss. The second most frequent answer was “worrying about loved ones,” followed by loneliness and inconsistent sleep schedules.

The pandemic has even given rise to a new phenomenon known as “pandemic dreams.” These are vivid dreams that center on death, sickness, and fears about the outbreak.

Data Reveals Connection Between Sleep and Politics

The pandemic is just the most recent factor to inhibit Americans from getting quality sleep. The truth is that we’ve been struggling for years. And one of the major underlying themes is a harsh political environment.

If it seems like we’re in a more hostile political environment than ever, it’s probably because we are. It’s no longer just the 24/7 cable news cycle -- it’s the internet and social media. In our world of constant connectivity, the hate and vitriol of political agendas, corruption, and tasteless reporting never sleeps. And there’s data to suggest that, as a result, Americans aren’t sleeping either.

“It seems that Americans are sufferings some pretty negative consequences because of their attention to and engagement in politics,” says Kevin Smith, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska, and one of the lead researchers of a recent study on how politics are affecting Americans’ mental health.

According to the study, in which 800 people were surveyed, nearly 40 percent of respondents say politics are a cause of stress in their lives. Roughly 1 in 5 respondents say they lose sleep and/or feel fatigued and depressed as a result of politics.

While the stress of politics seems to cut through most demographics, the research does show that those who are more likely to experience negative consequences of politics are younger, more liberal, unemployed, and more dogmatic in their beliefs.

A separate research study from 2017 looked at the sleep patterns of 400,000 Americans and found that 32.9 percent of people have self-reported sleep problems (a number that’s up from 28.6 percent in 2004).

“Of those polled in 2017, 40.9 percent of African-Americans, 32.9 percent of Hispanics and 30.9 percent of Caucasians said they typically slept fewer than six hours per night. The rapid increase evident in these figures -- up 6.5 percentage points amongst African-Americans and 7 percent amongst Hispanics from 2004 -- means these groups are not only suffering from a more severe sleep surfeit, but at a faster rate over time,” Smithsonian Magazine reports.

While this latter study didn’t take the time to analyze the effect of politics on sleep patterns, one has to wonder if there’s a correlation between the increased hostility of American politics and the diminishing sleep quality over the past two decades. If you look at the study from Kevin Smith and combine it with mounds of anecdotal evidence, the clear answer is yes. Now the question is, what do we do about it?

Practical Solutions for Overcoming Sleep Troubles

Sleep troubles are nothing new, but there’s a big difference between health-related sleep disorders and environmental sleep issues -- i.e. problems caused by external factors. Individuals with sleep disorders like insomnia, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, and narcolepsy need to see a doctor so the underlying condition can be dealt with. Those struggling with environmental sleep issues can typically address the problem on their own.

The stress and restlessness over hostile American politics qualifies as an environmental sleep issue. Here are some practical ways it can be dealt with:

  1. Recognize What the News Is

It’s imperative that you recognize the news for what it is. Contrary to popular belief, cable news -- and network news, for that matter -- isn’t about reporting what’s happening in the world at any given moment in time. Instead, it’s about exploiting stories in ways that make people feel fearful and anxious. As the competition has grown in the news industry, it’s no longer a race to be the first one to break a story. Today’s reporting is all about securing advertisers and getting paid.

“News programming uses a hierarchy if it bleeds, it leads,” psychologist Deborah Serani writes. “Fear-based news programming has two aims. The first is to grab the viewer’s attention. In the news media, this is called the teaser. The second aim is to persuade the viewer that the solution for reducing the identified fear will be in the news story.”

When you look at the news through this lens, you can cut through a lot of the mess and see that the news is really just curated sound bites with inflammatory rhetoric that’s designed to profit from your anxiety.

  1. Turn Off the News

The best rule of thumb is to turn off the news, unsubscribe from biased newsletters, and avoid clickbaity websites that are designed to paralyze you with fear.

Theoretically, we all know that this is a good idea. But in the back of our minds, we’re scared that we’ll suddenly become disengaged from society and misinformed about what’s happening. Don’t let this fear keep you glued to the news. There are plenty of good journalists you can follow, as well as independent blogs that cut through the crap and report on what’s actually happening -- no spin zone needed. And if you’re willing to think for yourself, you’re more than capable of forming your own beliefs.

  1. Optimize Your Sleep Environment

Once you’ve removed the bulk of the stressor from your life, you can turn your attention toward optimizing your bedroom so that it’s conducive to better sleep. Here are some suggestions:

  • Make sure your bed is comfortable and supportive. In addition to having the right mattress, take some time to choose the correct pillow. (This is a very underrated step.) If you’re a side or stomach sleeper, traditional pillows probably aren’t best. They place constant pressure on the face, which leads to discomfort (and even the formation of acne and wrinkles). An alternative like the YourFacePillow removes this pressure and enables your skin to breathe and relax.
  • Your bedroom should be kept at a cool temperature and needs to be completely dark. If you have a problem with light entering into your bedroom, blackout curtains are highly suggested. If sound is an issue, a white noise machine like Sound+Sleep is a worthwhile investment.
  1. Avoid Negative Stress Coping Mechanisms

Finally, make sure you avoid any negative stress-coping mechanisms that could inhibit you from falling and staying asleep. This includes crutches like drinking alcohol prior to bed, consuming excessive caffeine, binge-watching TV, and overeating. Instead, spend your time before bed doing something relaxing -- like drinking tea, reading, or journaling.

Hopes and Prayers for Political Unity

It’s one thing to turn off the news and optimize your sleep habits -- but this is just treating the symptoms of a larger problem. In order for more Americans to feel comfortable and confident with the direction of the country, we need to demand more from our politicians and members of the news media on both sides. What we really need is greater political unity, more bipartisan public policy, and less fearmongering and biased reporting from so-called journalists.

One of the beautiful things about living in America is that we have the right to disagree with one another -- as well as those in power -- and can publicly voice these opinions. And though we never want to lose these rights, there’s something to be said for listening more than talking -- for understanding how others see things. In doing so, we’ll find that we’re more engaged and sympathetic. Stress will subside, sleep quality will increase, and overall health will improve. That’s a platform we should all be able to agree on.