I left the country after the presidential election. No, I didn’t move to Canada. I took a little post-election vacation. I thought the trip would allow me to heal after the rough election years (yes, plural) and recover from perpetually feeling on edge, even in the downtime with my friends and family. But after two weeks in paradise, I woke up from a nightmare that revealed a new presidential plot, one that involved plastic surgery and voice manipulators used to fool citizens. My day-to-day fear, anxiety and anger had crawled into my nightly respite, even when I was more removed from my upsetting social media feeds than ever. And I know I’m only among the thousands of Americans having nightmares or experiencing major emotions pre- and post-election. Many Americans suffered what one professor wrote could be described as “a collective trauma” on election day that hasn’t ended.
“Not only did the election come up in therapy sessions, but for at least 80 percent of my clients, it was a topic they stated was important or critical that they be able to discuss. Clients I had not seen in months to years called my office in crisis, needing to talk about how to manage their feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, hopelessness, powerlessness and disgust,” psychologist Anita Sanz divulges. She also gave us insight into what issues drove such strong emotions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, “The majority of those wanting to discuss the election results were concerned specifically about the rights of women, minorities, LGBT individuals and undocumented immigrants being undermined or worse. Many were concerned about what the intent to repeal the Affordable Care Act would do to the ability to have healthcare. It knocked a lot of people off balance,” she says.
THE GOOD AND THE BAD OF ANGER
Some wonks, like in this Washington Post article, and women, as in this Jezebel article, have advocated for our anger not to end, either on a nationwide or individual level. There’s a call to remain divided, alert, upset — in order to protect our rights. And that makes sense on some level.
“Anger is an emotion designed to change things, to get someone to start doing something or stop doing something,” Dr. Joseph Shrand, Chief of Adolescent Psychiatry at High Point Treatment Centers explains. But many psychologists believe we’ll actually be able to be much more alert and successful in every part of our lives if we start dealing with those feelings, not flame them. “Anger is also one of the few emotions that’s energizing… it comes with additional energy, I like to think it’s to assist us in addressing a violation or attempting to right a wrong, if that energy can be harnessed and used in a healthy way,” notes Dr. Sanz, saying,“If you’re going to survive — much less thrive — during the next four years, you’ve got to play the long game.”
In order to ease the constant stress that flares up with every new political headline and, LBR, at least stop the nightmares about secret hair implants, I know that I need to cope with my feelings. “You need to move out of survival mode and into active coping mode as soon as you’re able to. You’ll know you’re ready when you get a feeling of ‘enough!’ that indicates it would be better to do something, even if you aren’t sure what to do yet or are still feeling intense emotions,” Dr. Sanz says. After talking with several psychologists, I know it’s possible to stay vigilant, active AND healthy. Here are the expert steps that you can take if you’re still upset about the election and want to stay involved, but just can’t live like this anymore.
WHATEVER YOU’RE FEELING, IT’S NORMAL
Several psychologists reached out to me to say the election has come up numerous times in the past few months. So, on that level, you’re “normal,” and not alone. But also, part of the process of coping is to just let yourself feel your emotions. Here are the first two things you need to do to set yourself up for active coping.
1. Name your emotions. “We have a habit of trying to disregard or hide our emotions in order to ‘deal’ with them. It doesn’t work that way,” Cynthia Ackrill, MD, stress coach and board member of the American Institute of Stress, says. “Name your emotions and do so with clarity. We get especially sloppy with stress and fear. But it’s easier to deal if you identify exactly what your fear is. Then recognize what internal powers you have to deal with that fear: courage, creativity, persistence, a good sense of humor, the ability to bring your values to what matters most to you.” Dr. Ackrill says to just keep working on this part of the process until it clicks, because reflection on what you’re feeling can take a long time.
2. Accept your feelings for what they are. If you’ve taken an intro to meditation or mindfulness, this is a similar concept of acceptance. “Don’t try to keep yourself from feeling sadness, fear, shame, helplessness, anger, overwhelm or relief. Allow yourself to feel without blocking, shaming or criticizing yourself,” says Dr. Sanz.
8 WAYS TO EASE YOUR ANGER AND FEAR + FEEL EMPOWERED
1. Stop feeding your scary or negative feelings. Feeling and accepting your emotions is one thing, and doing things that amp them up is another. “Try to avoid feeding your negative feelings. If you’re scared, don’t keep reading posts on the ‘Trumpocalypse.’ If you’re sad, don’t isolate yourself from your friends and family and ditch all of your self-care. If you’re angry, don’t fuel your anger by picking fights or getting snarky with your partner. Let yourself feel, but also develop a strategy for dealing with the trauma,” Dr. Sanz says.
If you know that going into the black hole of the internet’s upsetting info is tempting, for example, set a proactive goal. “Limiting the amount of upsetting information you’re exposed to can have positive benefits. For example, you may set a limit of one article a day you can tell from the title is going to negatively impact your mental health,” says Brittany Sherwood, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. “Balancing negative news with news that shows you the good people are doing in this world or information that brings you joy can be helpful.”
2. Normalize your life. Try to find joy again by doing the things that you liked before you became a sad, angry shell of yourself. “Go back to focusing on your work, social life, physical and spiritual health and self-care routines you had pre-election,” Dr. Sanz says. Those routines and social interactions are a powerful reminder of your ability to cope. “Keeping the aspects of your life that are within your control as normal as possible will allow you to integrate the aspects that are not within your control more easily. This reduces stress and helps you feel more able to cope,” Dr. Sanz says.
3. Give yourself breaks each day to relax and recharge. A little daily deep-breathing is good for you no matter what, but it’s a must if your stress response is still in overdrive. “Do something daily to invoke the relaxation response,” Dr. Ackrill recommends. “This is the physiologic anti-stress power of your own body. You can turn it on with smile breathwork, guided meditations or a number of apps. This also empowers your executive powers, your more creative brain that can help you regulate your out-of-control emotions, keep healthy perspectives and find ways to survive and have a positive influence,” she says.
4. Respect others more than ever. “When is the last time you got angry at someone treating you with respect?” Dr. Shrand asked. “You don’t. The brain doesn’t work that way. Being respected feels great,” he says. “There’s a collective anger and stress because many people now feel disrespected and devalued. But you don’t have to do the same thing. In our brain are cells called mirror neurons. We can mirror what other people feel and are influenced by them.” Instead of being influenced by the anger that you may be surrounded by, he says to consciously BE the positive influence on others.
“At every moment you have an opportunity to remind someone of their value by treating them with respect. Right now a lot of people feel demeaned. But that does not need to stop you from reminding people that they are valuable, deserving of respect and that we’re all in this together.” This advice is so simple, positive and powerful.
5. Stay informed without catastrophizing. This is one of the hardest steps for us, in our social media-heavy world. “You have to find a way to walk the fine line between gathering helpful information about what’s happening and what you can do about it and becoming obsessed and fearful about the future. Seek out sources of information that are reliable and don’t exaggerate and avoid sites that are known for false, conspiracy-based news,” Dr. Sanz says.
Dr. Ackrill agrees it’s important to limit your exposure to inflammatory news. “It’s too tempting to listen to emotional ramp-up messages that support your anger or fear,” Dr. Ackrill says.
6. Empower yourself by setting clear goals for involvement. “It’s very common and entirely understandable to feel overwhelmed by a feeling your efforts aren’t making an impact. Setting yourself up for failure by setting lofty, unattainable and unclear goals doesn’t help you and does not help the cause you are fighting for,” Sherwood says. Instead, move forward and actively empower yourself. She recommends you “take some time to think about what it is you are most concerned about on a large scale, and then spend a little time (30 minutes a day is more than enough) researching organizations currently working on this issue. Sign up for their mailing list, and look into the volunteer opportunities available.”
7. Take action with these ideas. “Knowing there’s something you can do in even the most dis-empowering situation can make the difference in your becoming resilient versus distressed and unable to cope. Within all systems, if you’re a part of that system, you have an opportunity to effect change,” Dr. Sanz says. She shares several ideas for making a difference. “Add your national and state representatives and senators’ emails, phone numbers, websites and Twitter accounts to your contact lists so that you can access them easily. Join groups that are organizing to address issues and problems that matter to you. Donate to organizations which pledge to address the same. You can be powerful in your own life in these ways, and contribute to the change you want to see in the world,” Dr. Sanz says.
Sherwood also says that these actions can be on a smaller, local level. Action that will feel tangible includes “educating yourself on the research supporting your view, selling something you own and donating the money to the cause, putting your change in a donation jar and keeping dollar bills to give to the homeless.”
8. Track your efforts. Doing just one small thing each day adds up, but in our darkest days, that effort and impact can be hard to remember. “Add a page to your journal or phone notes to keep track of each tiny step you take, so that when things seem really overwhelmingly terrible you can get a burst of positive hope and energy from reviewing the things you’ve already done and from the things you will continue to do,” Sherwood says.
Dr. Sanz leaves us with some hope for ourselves, if not the country, with her thoughts on the potential for something called post-traumatic growth. “No one wants awful things to happen just for the opportunity to find a silver lining. But the fact is that most people who’ve experienced devastating life events come out of them eventually not only functioning just as well as they did before but actually feeling stronger and wiser. To prepare yourself to grow from this trauma, ask yourself what you can learn from what has happened, how you can grow, what you can do and how you can contribute to bettering the situation.” We all have a lot of reflection, healing and change to look forward to, and we think the Women’s March is a great place to start the conversation about respect.
If you’re feeling a surge in emotions post-election, how are you coping? Let us know @BritandCo.
(Photos via Getty)