For some people the election of Donald Trump was a glorious moment of triumph. For others, it was a debilitating moment of trauma. But for a team of researchers at UCLA, it was the perfect opportunity to test how the brain responds to political distress.
"A lot of research on stress in the brain looks at events that occur on an individual level," said Sarah Tashjian, a graduate student in psychology at UCLA who led the work. "We wanted to see if we could extrapolate that to a larger event like a shift in the political climate."
In a study published this week in the Journal of Neuroscience, Tashjian and her adviser, UCLA psychology professor Adriana Galvan, report that the election of Trump led some people who felt distressed by the result to become clinically depressed, but not all of them.
So, why did some distressed people get depressed while others didn't?
The authors found it may have to do with how an individual's brain reacts to rewards, and how much emotional support one gets from family.
"Even if you are feeling distressed or worried about the future, all hope is not lost," Tashjian said. "Our bodies have these built-in biological buffers and social buffers that can help us deal with stressful times."
To come to this conclusion, the researchers recruited 60 study participants from Los Angeles -- 40 who said they expected to be negatively affected by the result of the election; and 20 who said they were not affected at all, to serve as a control.
(Because all study participants were given an MRI -- a considerable expense -- the sample size was rather small.)
The volunteers completed a suite of surveys that indicated the level of their distress over the election and whether they exhibited any depression symptoms such as lack of appetite or bouts of crying. They also answered questions about how much social support they get from friends and family, as well as their personal discrimination experiences.
Next, volunteers were sent to an MRI machine, where the researchers measured their brain's response to getting a monetary reward, missing out on getting a monetary reward, and losing money.
The authors were particularly interested in activity in two regions of the brain -- the nucleus accumbens, which is embedded deep in the brain; and the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain above the eyes. These regions have a strong connection to each other, and both are involved in what scientists call "reward circuitry."
"When something feels good, or you get social support, money, or candy, this part of the brain gets really excited," Galvan said.
Previous work in other labs had found that people who have more activation in these two areas of the brain have fewer symptoms of depression, the authors said. In addition, when these people get depressed they generally have better outcomes than people who do not have high levels of activation in these two regions.
"Basically, if you can get your reward system active, you can dampen feelings of distress," Galvan said.
However, nobody had ever tested whether these findings would hold true in response to political distress.
As it turned out, they did.
In the new study, which took place within four months of the election, 23 percent of people in the distressed group reported feeling clinically depressed because of the results of the presidential race compared with just 5 percent of the control group.
Although the remaining 77 percent were just as distressed by the election results, they appeared to be protected from depression either by high activation in the brain's reward system or by a high level of family support, the authors found.
Oddly, having supportive friends was not correlated with exhibiting less-depressive symptoms.
The researchers suggest this might be because much of the distress around the results of the election came from historically marginalized groups who worried about increased discrimination.
"It may be that when something is related to your identity group it calls for a greater reliance on family than friends," Tashjian said.
The authors are continuing their work with the same participants, bringing them back to the lab for further study every three months.
"We want to see if there is any group difference in how the brain responds to rewards at the one-year mark because of the state people have been in over the last year," Tashijan said.
In the meantime, the authors said their work shows that social support and reward systems dampen depressive symptoms, highlighting two tools that might mitigate election-related distress.
"As with any distressing event, political or psychological, staying connected to significant others and continuing to engage in activities that give us pleasure is important," Galvan said. "We should treat ourselves to things that give us joy in times of distress."
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