POLITICS, RELIGION, AND MONEY. It’s often said that you shouldn’t talk about these three things.
But, it’s getting harder to avoid political discussions. People seem more vocal about sharing their viewpoints, and political divisiveness is stronger than ever. When you’re surrounded by people with opposing views, it can be lonely. Political isolation can take a toll on your mental and physical health.
“Politics is grounded deeply in our beliefs and values,” says Matthew Glowiak, Ph.D., L.C.P.C., a licensed clinical professional counselor who specializes in relationships, boundaries, and how the political landscape affects mental health. “People have strong feelings, and when the topic of conversation arises, they may feel put on the defense.”
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Whether it’s surrounding a political party, a specific candidate running for office, or issues like abortion or COVID-19, polarization is rampant. An NBC News Poll conducted in October 2022 found that 81 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans believe that the opposing side’s agenda will destroy America.
About 60 percent of Americans across political parties think that people mostly get along, but that politics drives them apart, according to a 2021 CBS News and YouGov poll. Still, 33 percent say conversations with people with different political views are usually “unpleasant.”
When you live in a bubble surrounded by people with differing views, including coworkers, family members, or others, it can increase feelings of loneliness and isolation. You might feel like your opinions and beliefs are constantly being called into question, Glowiak says. You might start questioning yourself and wonder if you’re wrong to believe what you believe, which permeates feelings of hopelessness.
“Giving up seems to be the best option, and this is why so many people who ultimately come to believe they don’t have a voice, don’t vote,” he adds.
All of this can lead to mental health conditions, like anxiety and depression, which can also affect you physically.
How Political Isolation Affects Your Mental Health
“Political topics can be existential in nature, deeply striking at the cord of understanding concepts of self, others, life, and death,” says Michael Roeske, Psy.D., senior director of the Center for Research & Innovation at Newport Healthcare.
So, it’s understandable to get defensive or feel helpless when those around you disagree with you or perceive you as a “bad guy.” Glowiak says, “The experience heightens one’s physiological stress response, which ultimately leaves one in a state of fight-flight-freeze.”
Research suggests that people who perceived high levels of political polarization had 52 percent to 71 percent higher odds of developing a depressive or anxiety disorder.
Feeling politically isolated might make you feel hyper-vigilant and constantly anxious, says John Cottone, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in relationships, politics, and anxiety and depression. This might lead to fewer social interactions, which fuels isolation and triggers depression.
“A vicious circle often ensues, characterized by more fear, avoidance, and depression,” he says. “It can also breed black-and-white thinking, which is a core aspect of several personality disorders, including borderline personality disorder.”
People sometimes “spiral,” when they’re lonely and lack social support, Glowiak says. Along with depression or anxiety, some people may experience suicidal or homicidal ideation or engage in risky behaviors.
“This is why we continue seeing more incidents of completed suicides and mass shootings throughout the nation at an alarming rate,” he says.
Stress and Isolation Can Affect Your Physical Health, Too
Mental health conditions often elicit a physiological response. Research suggests that people who feel more politically different than the average voters in their state experience more days of poor physical health each month.
Fearing people with opposing viewpoints causes a constant state of “arousal and anxiety,” Cottone says.
Stress causes the brain to release the chemical cortisol, which regulates your body’s response to stress. Roeske says moderate stress can actually be good for you, especially if you’re “impassioned by it” and it’s not preoccupying.
Too much cortisol long-term can impact the immune system, and cause muscle weakness, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and obesity. Chronic stress can make you irritable and cause conditions, like heart attacks, strokes, and chronic pain.
“We’re not set up for this constant onslaught of stress around the political divisiveness that’s happening now,” Roeske says.
People with depression might experience low moods, withdraw from social interactions, and stop taking care of themselves, Glowiak adds. Feeling political polarization also increases the likelihood of sleep disorders by almost 50%, research shows.
Tips for Coping With Political Isolation
“The freedom to engage in political discourse is an important part of our society,” Roeske says. But, the divisiveness, negativity, and isolation of it all can take a toll. Here are some tips for coping with political polarization to protect your health.
1. Recognize that you’re not alone
Even when you feel like you’re surrounded by people who you disagree with, you’re likely not alone in your beliefs. “Although you may find yourself in a community where others are opposed to your beliefs, there are others who think like you,” Glowiak says. He recommends subscribing to social media groups that align with your beliefs and getting involved with local organizations with like-minded views.
2. Center political conversations on personal experiences
Though it’s not easy, try to avoid talking about politics and current events with people you don’t know well, Cottone says. If you can’t avoid a conversation, he suggests focusing on how your beliefs have been shaped by your personal experiences—not restating the talking points of political commentators in the media.
“Even among those with opposing views, respect is usually offered to a person when their views come from their personal experiences and not the propaganda they’ve consumed,” he says.
3. Expand your network
You’re likely going to encounter people with opposing political views, so knowing how to talk to them—without getting angry or feeling your anxiety levels rise—is important. Cottone suggests first pursuing deeper relationships (online or in person) with a few like-minded individuals.
Then, gradually reach out to people with different beliefs in a non-threatening way to “get comfortable with dissonant opinions,” he says. “Then branch out further and further as you feel safe. Your social network will continue to grow.”
4. Turn off the news
Being informed is important, but the constant 24/7 news cycle can take a toll on your mental health. So, limiting your news intake can lower your stress levels, especially if you’re prone to worrying, ruminating, or catastrophizing, Roeske says.
“Tune out of doom and gloom news, which only exacerbates the negative thinking and feeling cycle,” Glowiak says.
5. Set boundaries
Asking a friend or relative not to talk politics around you is a reasonable request. If they refuse and it’s creating a problem in the relationship, Roeske suggests creating some physical distance and not engaging with that person. This might be difficult in some cases, but setting any boundaries helps.
6. Recognize that political pundits often don’t represent real life
Limit political commentary, which can “trade in the rhetoric of fear,” Cottone says. “Recognize that real people, especially on a one-on-one level, bear little resemblance to the caricatures painted of them in the media, including those in opposing political tribes.”
Also, recognize that people are flawed, and fear and anxiety can make everyone polarized and irrational at times, Roeske says.
7. Get involved with your community
Campaign for candidates that support your views, volunteer, or start your own organization as a way of dealing with isolation. Even consider running for office. “Many political leaders got started due to being sick of the current state of the world,” Glowiak says.
8. Know that you probably won’t change anyone’s mind
Listen and ask questions when talking to someone with different views—don’t just focus on what you’re going to say in response, Roeske says. Stick to facts, avoid exaggeration, and try not to point out flaws in what someone else is saying.
“Ultimately, don’t have an expectation of changing people’s minds,” he says. “I think a lot of times the hope is that to energize discourse, you’re going to have the other person see your perspective in a way that sways their opinion. But, it typically doesn’t happen.”
9. Take care of yourself
Try not to take it personally when other people disagree with you or even attack your perspective, Roeske says. And, take care of yourself when you’re dealing with excess stress. Get plenty of sleep, eat healthy, exercise, limit alcohol use, and participate in activities you enjoy, like sports, reading, or watching TV.
10. Talk to a mental health professional
Do you worry so much about being around people with opposite beliefs that you avoid social interaction? If so, talk to a mental health professional, Cottone says. “If you’re experiencing paranoia, consistent anxiety, or high blood pressure, it’s also a sign.”
When any feelings get to be too much to handle and impact your daily life, also seek mental health treatment, Glowiak recommends.
“Here, one has a safe space to express oneself without judgment,” he says. “The therapist and client may also work through symptomology to get to a better state. Though the way of the world may not change, one may find peace.”
Erica Sweeney is a writer who mostly covers health, wellness and careers. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade, Money, Business Insider and many more.