Study: Anti-Trump young adults faced spike in stress hormone cortisol after Election Day in 2016

Some young adults in the United States experienced an increase in biological stress after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, according to new research that appears in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. The study measured levels of the stress hormone cortisol before, during, and after the election.

The new findings provide evidence that important sociopolitical events can impact the psychological and physical functioning of individuals.

“My colleagues and I study stress in adolescents and young adults, which usually means examining proximal stressors at school, within the family, or between peers. However, for this study, we wanted to see if a macro-level event could also influence young adults’ everyday emotional and biological processes,” said Lindsay T. Hoyt, an assistant professor of psychology at Fordham University and corresponding author of the study.

“The 2016 presidential election presented a unique opportunity to explore this question, especially given reports that many people in the U.S., and Millennials in particular, were experiencing a period of heightened stress,” she explained.

“Also, because an election is planned for a specific date, we knew that we could capture individual responses to an important, national event in “real time,” measuring both psychological and physiological functioning immediately before, during, and after the election of the next president.”

The researchers examined 286 young adults (18-25 years old) from November 6 to 10 in 2016. The participants completed nightly surveys measuring their stress levels, emotions, activities, and election involvement. They also provided three salivary samples per day, which were used to measure their cortisol levels.

The majority of the participants (68%) cast their vote for Hillary Clinton, while 18% voted for Trump and 7% voted for a third party candidate. They were recruited from New York and Arizona.

Hoyt and her colleagues found an overall increase in negative moods in the run-up to the election, which peaked on Election Day (November 8). The increase in negative moods was strongest among ethnic minorities and women.

Participants who didn’t believe Trump’s would make a good president also showed a slight decline in bedtime cortisol levels leading up to the election, but a significant increase in bedtime cortisol after the election.

“Although young adults usually think of stressors as the personal problems, imminent threats, or daily hassles that penetrate their everyday lives, this study suggests that macro-level events (at a national scale) can influence their health and well-being,” Hoyt told PsyPost.

“However, it’s also important to acknowledge that individual responses to sociopolitical events, like an election, are not distributed evenly across different groups of people. In terms of this study, we found that most individuals reported an increase in negative mood in the days leading up to the election, and a spike on election night, but overall, emotional and physiological responses were largely dependent upon gender, ethnicity/race, and political attitudes.”

Hoyt said the research had three important caveats.

“First of all, our ‘baseline’ (i.e., initial) levels of positive/negative mood and cortisol in this study were taken just two days before the election,” she explained. “This is relevant because, in many analyses, we found that reports of mood or cortisol levels returned to ‘baseline’ in the days following the election, however, feelings of stress or tension were likely already higher in the days leading up to the election than on a typical day.”

“Second, our sample consisted of 286 college students (72% women; 66% non-Hispanic White; majority identified as Democrats) from just two states, and is therefore not representative of the diverse, young adult population in the U.S.”

“Finally, this study examined differences among women/men – and ethnic-racial minority/White young adults – but we recognize that these are not homogenous groups. Future research with larger samples should examine the complexity of group membership by interacting individual and political characteristics in predicting psychological and physiological reactions to sociopolitical events.”

“In our future work, we hope to study the long-term impact of elections and related policy changes on women and ethnic/racial minorities, but also other marginalized groups that include immigrants and sexual and gender minority populations,” Hoyt added.

The study, “Young adults’ psychological and physiological reactions to the 2016 U.S. presidential election“, was authored by Lindsay T. Hoyt, Katharine H. Zeiders, Natasha Chaku, Russell B. Toomey, and Rajni L. Nair.