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I Watched The Debate While Monitoring My Vital Signs And Holy Crap It Was Stressful

Talk about fight or flight.

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This election season has been stressful.

Instagram: @buzzfeed

Every day (every moment?) there's reason anew to be anxious about Nov. 8, which is why the simple act of watching a debate can be...tense.

For the second presidential debate, I wanted to face my fears. And I also wanted to see if the stress I've been feeling this election season is borne out physiologically.

So, I watched the debate wearing a Fitbit Charge HR and a Withings blood pressure monitor.

Sally Tamarkin / BuzzFeed News

Because I'm a fitness editor and this sounded like a normal thing to do.

I took my heart rate and blood pressure throughout the debate to see how my body responded to every stressful moment, from discussion of Hot Mic-ageddon to mentions of Deplorablesgate. (Gadget rental company Lumoid lent us the wearables for this experiment.)


Of course I know from experience that when I'm super anxious (or scared), I feel my heart start to race.

Twitter: @mtredden

But in order to understand more about the physiological response of heart rate and blood pressure to stress, I reached out to Dr. Martha Gulati, division chief of cardiology for the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix and editor-in-chief of

She explained that when we experience acute stress — whether it's a scary movie or an anxiety-provoking conversation or realizing someone is hovering creepily behind you — the body releases stress hormones (namely adrenaline and cortisol). This, explains Gulati, is the body's evolutionary fight-or-flight response kicking into gear.

Your heart responds to the stress hormones by beating faster to support whatever fighting or fleeing you might have to do. Meanwhile, your blood pressure rises because your blood vessels have constricted in order to slow blood flow to your extremities (so it can go to big muscles and organs instead).

Armed with the knowledge that I might experience several fight-or-flight moments over the course of the next hour and a half, I tucked into the debate.

I took my readings before and after the debate, plus seven more times over the course of the 90 minutes.

For reference, according to the American Heart Organization, a BP of 120/80 (or lower) and a heart rate of 60 to 100 BPM are considered normal.

Right before the debate, my blood pressure was 89/54 and my heart rate was 61 BPM.

Sally Tamarkin / BuzzFeed News

I could tell that I was already a bit amped up pre-debate because when I'm at rest my blood pressure is usually a bit lower, and my resting heart rate is 53 BPM.


At 9:10 p.m. Anderson Cooper asked Trump about his "grab them by the pussy" remarks.

CSPAN / Sally Tamarkin / BuzzFeed News

That's when Trump said that his bragging about sexual assault is just "locker room talk."

As you can see from my numbers, even though Trump tried mightily to change the subject by talking about ISIS (????), my vitals responded to hearing him say the phrase "locker room talk" three times in three-ish minutes.

By 9:25 p.m., my vitals showed that I was the most stressed I'd be all night, and for good reason.

CSPAN / Sally Tamarkin / BuzzFeed News

Here's what had happened in the 12 minutes since my last reading:

- Trump talked about sexual assault allegations against Bill Clinton.

- Trump said Hillary Clinton should be ashamed of herself for bringing up his hot mic comments.

- The audience applauded Trump for it.

- Clinton said that Trump owed Obama an apology for his racist lie that Obama was not born in the US.

- Trump said that if elected he'd instruct his attorney general to look into Clinton's deleted email "situation."

- Clinton got booed for saying that everything Trump said about her emails was false.

- Moderator Martha Raddatz said, "The audience needs to calm down here."

- Trump got more applause and a big laugh for joking that Clinton would be in jail if he were president.

This was the only time my blood pressure would rise above 100 the entire night.

OK, that was a lot. My blood pressure was just starting to get back down to the 80s when it rose again at 9:48.

CSPAN / Sally Tamarkin / BuzzFeed News

Here's what had been going on for the previous 11 minutes:

An audience member asked how the candidates would help Muslim-Americans avoid being labeled as threats against the US.

- Trump talked about "radical Islamic terror" (and admonished President Obama and Clinton for failing to use that phrasing).

- Trump falsely claimed that Muslims in the US know about terror plots but aren't reporting them (as he's done before).

- Trump reiterated his support for "extreme vetting" (aka banning Muslims from entering the US).

- Clinton said that terrorists use what Trump says about Muslims to recruit members.

- Trump said he was against the war in Iraq (he wasn't).

- Trump bragged about being endorsed by ICE.

Around 10 o'clock, my BP and HR both started to come down again.

CSPAN / Sally Tamarkin / BuzzFeed News

The conversation had turned to taxes and the tax code and tax returns and tax provisions. Look, I know this is all super important and super consequential, but I also find it super boring. Sue me.

Also, I was tired (with a side of emotionally exhausted) and also getting a little, well, bored.


Aaaand then it came back up a bit.

CSPAN / Sally Tamarkin / BuzzFeed News

I took this reading after a black audience member asked the candidates if they could be a devoted president to all Americans and Trump and Clinton vied for which candidate people of color should like and trust more. 👀

So, were these highs and lows actually bad for my health?

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What health implications can come from getting this stressed out while watching the debate? Gulati said that if you're generally healthy — no heart disease, blood pressure in the normal range — fluctuations in your heart rate and blood pressure don't really put you at risk. "These are spikes we’re expecting in day to day life," she said.

But she explained that the long-term effect of stress is a different story. And it actually depends on how you handle stress, especially when you're exposed to it over and over or for a prolonged period of time (like an election cycle or the holiday season or even a sports season if you get really tense watching your team compete). Plus, if you respond to this stress with unhealthy habits like smoking, binge drinking, or stress eating, you might actually be harming your health.

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