Yes, Politics Can Cause Your Heart to Skip a Beat

Illustration of heart with pacemaker

 Eugene Mymrin / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • A study published in May found that arrhythmia incidents increased by 77% leading up to and following the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
  • Stress can affect people's heart health, particularly for those with existing cardiovascular issues.
  • Addressing your mental health can help you reduce your risk of stress-related health issues.

It's no secret that stress can physically manifest itself in different ways and can even affect your heart health. But according to a new study, major sociopolitical events like an election can even get your heart beating at an irregular rhythm.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina looked at arrhythmia incidents among over 2,436 patients in the state in the six weeks leading up to and following the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Heart arrhythmia is caused by a disturbance in the heart's electrical system, making a person's heartbeat too fast, too slow, or in an irregular rhythm.

The researchers found that incidents of arrhythmia were higher during this time in North Carolina, which is a heavily targeted swing state during elections. Over 600 patients had over 2,500 arrhythmia incidents leading up to and during the election. This is a 77% increase in comparison to the control period.

Patients who were already susceptible to cardiovascular issues had higher rates of arrhythmia, too. The study was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in late May.

"Even though we are familiar with this kind of stress and acknowledge it, we often fail to fully understand the gravity of its impact on our health," Rashmi Parmar, MD, a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry, tells Verywell. "We have all felt the stress of the 2020 presidential election, which was held amidst the economic uncertainty, social isolation, and upheaval the pandemic brought into our lives over the past year."

Nikhil Warrier, MD, cardiac electrophysiologist and medical director of electrophysiology at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center, tells Verywell that previous research does support this relationship between stress and cardiovascular issues. "That being said again, just based on the study design itself, these are observational studies, so [they] can't kind of use cause and effect in terms of trying to link those two things," he says.

Link Between Stress and Cardiovascular Issues

Previous research indicates that stress during events people feel passionately about can increase the risk of cardiovascular incidents.

Warrier cites a 2008 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that looked at cardiovascular events during the World Cup. The researchers found that people in Munich, Germany, had more heart health issues when the German soccer team had matches in the tournament. "When Germans were playing in the World Cup, it was associated with increased risk of acute coronary syndromes and cardiac arrhythmias, or at least the incidence of it," Warrier says.

Stress-related conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder may also play a role in contributing to cardiovascular issues. A 2019 study published in the BMJ found that people with stress-related disorders were at an elevated risk of developing different cardiovascular diseases. “The excess relative risks of other studied cardiovascular diseases were more pronounced during the first year after diagnosis of a stress related disorder than thereafter,” the researchers wrote.

What You Should Do if You Experience Arrhythmia

Arrhythmia can be managed. Doctors may prescribe medicine, implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) or pacemaker, or sometimes surgery to help a person return to a normal heart rate.

While arrhythmia can be controlled, Warrier recommends that people take steps to live a healthy lifestyle and find ways to de-stress in order to prevent cardiovascular problems altogether.

“[There are] things that we can do to prevent cardiovascular issues, [like] exercising, living a healthy lifestyle whether that's diet, exercise, meditation, yoga, things to kind of de-stress our life in whatever way possible,” Warrier adds.

When You Should See a Doctor

If you experience symptoms of arrhythmia or another cardiovascular condition, whether or not it may be stress-inducted from a sociopolitical event, Warrier says you should see a doctor. He adds that it may be especially important to get this checked out if you have preexisting cardiovascular issues.

“When people have started having cardiac manifestations like ‘I’m feeling irregular heartbeat, fast heartbeat, [and] feeling faint,’ those are the things that kind of warrant additional kind of evaluation from a specialist,” he says.

What This Means For You

During stressful times, like a pandemic, it's important to take care of your mental health. You can try introducing mindfulness into your day to day, getting exercise, or meditating to de-stress. If you feel like the stress becomes too overwhelming, you should reach out to a mental healthcare provider.

Taking Care of Your Mental Health During Stressful Periods

Earlier research finds that elections can affect people's mental health based on the outcome. A January 2021 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, for example, found that episodes of depression were higher in Democrat-won states following the 2016 election. Taking care of your mental health during these times is especially important.

Parmar says that while events like these may be overwhelming, “there are ways to cope with such sociopolitical events so as to soften their blow on our psyche and overall health.” She suggests starting by limiting your exposure to the news.

"Limit your intake of news or social media coverage of stressful events," Parmar says. "If you cannot give up the news completely then schedule a set amount of time in your day to browse the news and then strictly stay away for the rest of the day. There are several phone apps which will help you block off the news websites or apps on your devices."

Accepting that sociopolitical events will inevitably arise also helps, according to Parmar. "Know that sociopolitical stress is going to be a part of our life from time to time, whether we like it or not," she says. "It is somewhat comforting to know that you are not alone in feeling this way, probably everyone around you is going through the same kind of stress."

Parmar also recommends learning to ask for help when stressful moments overwhelm you. "You might be struggling with symptoms of depression, anxiety, inability to focus, and anger which may be affecting your functioning at home and work," she says. "If you feel like things are getting out of hand, reach out to your primary care physician or a mental health professional for additional help."

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Rosman L, Salmoirago‐Blotcher E, Mahmood R, et al. Arrhythmia risk during the 2016 US presidential election: the cost of stressful politics. J Am Heart Assoc. 2021;10(11):e020559. doi:10.1161/jaha.120.020559

  3. Wilbert-Lampen U, Leistner D, Greven S, et al. Cardiovascular events during World Cup SoccerN Engl J Med. 2008;358(5):475-483. doi:10.1056/nejmoa0707427

  4. MedlinePlus. Arrhythmia.

  5. Yan BW, Hsia RY, Yeung V, Sloan FA. Changes in mental health following the 2016 presidential election. J Gen Intern Med. 2021;36(1):170-177. doi:10.1007/s11606-020-06328-6

By Julia Métraux
Julia Métraux is a health and culture writer specializing in disability.