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POLITICAL DISCORD IN RUN UP TO ELECTIONS MAY BE AFFECTING SA’S MENTAL HEALTH

Have you started to bite your nails, noticed your heart racing more often and feeling increasingly anxious and helpless? Politics and the looming elections might be to blame say experts.

Shouqat Mugjenker, Mental Health Portfolio Manager at Pharma Dynamics says whatever your political beliefs, the ongoing economic uncertainty and discord in SA, in especially an election year, can be a recipe for increased mental health risk.

“Being bombarded by political content 24/7 is not only emotionally draining but could cause symptoms of acute stress, such as trouble sleeping, mood swings, elevated blood pressure, anxiety and depression.

“Since the downfall of several state-owned enterprises, widespread corruption, lack of accountability, rolling black-outs and rising crime, many are frustrated, angry and outright stressed about their prospects in the country. According to Statistics SA, nearly one million people born in South Africa now live abroad, which is indicative of the nation’s sentiment. In the months leading up to elections, arguments over politics also typically flare up, not only over the dinner table, but over Twitter and Facebook as well, which can become quite hostile and impact our mental well-being.

“Politics is becoming deeply personal these days, and no one is holding back. This creates a constant environment of stress among communities that are being targeted and those that feel vulnerable. Heightened racial hostility has a documented impact on cortisol (stress hormone) levels,” he notes.

In a recent poll conducted by Pharma Dynamics, more than 75% of South Africans said they regarded the future of the country as a significant source of stress. More than 66% are stressed about the current political situation and 30% about the upcoming election. A further 40% are also suffering from politics-related insomnia.

Mugjenker says that while it is our civic duty to stay politically informed, the way in which everyone gets their news, coupled with the way it is presented, may exacerbate stress levels.

“Many of us check the news and our social media feeds every hour, which exposes us to the latest political headlines, whether we like it or not. Photos and videos being uploaded by bystanders capturing political events, which are shared can often be shocking and induce feelings of anxiety. In some cases, it may also worsen personal worries and fears, leading to an emotional overload, which can have detrimental mental repercussions.

“Too much stress over a long period of time, can also impact our physical health. Studies have found that acute stress leads to inflammation in the body, which could trigger a range of illnesses ranging from atrophy of the brain, nerve damage, heart disease, stroke and premature death,” he points out.

So how can we make our experiences with politics and the election less stressful and more productive? Mugjenker suggests the following:

  1. Limit political news consumption: Everyone is wired differently, therefore, political content that may upset one person, may not affect another. However, most people find it difficult to ignore negative information in the news, especially since our brain is programmed to identify threats and not to overlook them. If you’re one of those people whose mood is impacted negatively by political news, try to limit your news consumption to once a day – during lunch or before supper and stick to it.
  2. Get enough sleep during elections: To avoid a bad night’s rest, don’t consume any political news just before bed-time.
  3. Boost your mood: If you’re feeling anxious or stressed out about what you’ve read, listened to or watched, try elevating your mood by exercising, listening to music or participating in a hobby that sparks joy.
  4. Get involved: Part of what adds to the frustration of politics is that we often find ourselves disempowered and helpless, not knowing what to do to make a real difference. Getting involved in a tangible way – big or small – such as volunteering or joining your municipal ward council committee, can be very empowering. It transforms you from being a victim of political circumstance to becoming a problem-solver.
  5. Cast your vote: Even though it won’t necessarily fix all the problems we have, it is a chance for you to make your voice heard.

He says while most political anxiety isn’t clinical, it isn’t easy to deal with. “If politics are getting you down, talk to a loved one or a friend about how you’re feeling. Alternatively, contact our toll-free helpline on 0800 205 026, which is manned by trained counsellors who are on call from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week. Also visit www.letstalkmh.co.za for additional support.

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