The 2016 election continues to be a significant source of stress for people across political divides, according to the American Psychological Association. This election has involved high stakes on all sides, and people are reacting in ways that are impacting both their physical and mental health.
People in the U.S. are experiencing a type of “Post-Election Stress Disorder” (PESD), a term coined by Julie Beck from the Atlantic. While not an official disorder of the DSM-5 (The handbook of psychological disorders)—it is nevertheless a condition that feels real to people. People in this country are reporting feeling anxious, angry, disconnected, and triggered. For more information on PESD, check out the article below. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/11/how-to-cope-with-post-election-stress/507296/
Women, people of color, immigrants, disabled persons, the poor, the working middle class, among a number of other marginalized groups of people, are especially impacted. Election-related stress has aroused a form of collective stress response, that involves a triggering of past traumas and a fear of re-experiencing victimization and marginalization. However, it is vital to keep in mind that people experience stress and react to it in different ways. People are experiencing a variety of feelings, but especially stress, stress related to the uncertainty of the future and the fear of history repeating itself, or worse. For many, this election has aroused anger, sadness, and shame. Some of us are pulled toward aggression, hate, and divisiveness. These feelings are uncomfortable. We want to avoid them, displace them somehow. Despite this pull for avoidance or for destructive ways of coping, we must remember that emotions are meant to be felt, as they inform us of our personal experience, and there are ways to productively cope with them.
It is important that we reflect on our stress response, as it can inform of us of how to effectively adapt and get through this tense time in our history. Media outlets have played their part in subjecting people to triggering material, but these triggers are not entirely responsible. The experience of stress involves a reciprocal process. Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman (1984), longtime researchers of stress and cognitive appraisal, proposed that stress exists in the interaction of the internal and external worlds, in which the internal system constantly projects onto the environment as much as the environment is imposing on the internal. Stress arises when a person is faced with a threat to her well-being, or when a person perceives that she is limited in coping with the demands being made on her. It is vital to keep in mind here that the impact of stress depends on the way that person responds to it and how well she is able to self-regulate.
While taking care of your individual needs is important, focusing too much on personal self-care can cause people to forget the critical need for social connection and support. During times of stress, especially collective stress, strengthening connections with families, communities, and organizations is essential.
Here are some suggestions for responding to stress intentionally and effectively during this political transition:
- Become aware of yourself and of your surroundings. Try observing without judgment and accept the reality as it is. This will help keep you present with your feelings, the feelings of others and the state of the nation. It can be easy to slip into premature conclusions and distorted beliefs about the state of things and about the future. It is important that we stay present so that we can be more intentional with how we respond, and assure that we are responding to reality, rather than responding to rumination of distorted messages in our minds. Remaining present with our immediate experience of things can help us to access the wisdom and adaptability needed to regulate ourselves and to continue moving forward productively.
- Getting involved in the community can help manage fear and anxiety. Rather than withdrawing from society, avoiding political debate, wallowing in regret or disappointment, anticipating stress in the future, or using “if only” statements, practice shifting your attention to the present reality around you, reflect on your values, and engage in purposeful action. Taking action and involving yourself in your community, will help shift the negative thinking and feelings into more self-affirming, effective, and driven feelings and experiences of interconnectedness. Although the feelings are challenging, this time in our country’s history is calling for greater unity, community involvement, and intentional and thoughtful political discourse.
- In the pursuit for interconnectedness, look to support others. Instead of telling others who are distressed to calm down, or assuring them that everything will be okay, ask others what they need. This can help them feel that they are important, that they may know what is best for themselves, and that you offer a safe place to listen to them. By engaging interpersonally with curiosity, openness and authenticity, there is no reason why we can’t engage with others who have opposing views. Being open to the opinions of others helps us to understand others, and learn from them.
- When seeking to understand another, be aware that you may not entirely understand what someone else is going through, and may be limited in your ability to relate due to cultural difference or privilege. Those of us who benefit from privilege are at risk of asserting that privilege in stressful situations, as we demand explanations for others’ feelings, dominate conversations, or use privilege to override another person’s suffering. Those who benefit from privilege are used to considering their views as important and their opinions as worth listening to. As a part of a privileged group, it may be impossible to fully understand what others are feeling. You don’t have to connect with person’s experience, in order to support them. It is important to remember to listen openly, and learn from others, about their experiences, in place of making assumptions of their experience.
- Provide a safe and inviting environment for others, so that they can safely open up and process their pain. Meet them where they are, listen to their suffering, and connect with them without incentive to change them. Use this same approach with yourself. Find a safe space for you to process your pain, accept where you are, and try to embrace rather than change or escape the uncomfortable feelings.
- Consider asking for professional help from a therapist to deal with symptoms of PESD or other severe symptoms. Sitting with a more neutral person, one who can help to reflect on your experience and who works towards enabling people to connect with their inner resources, helps to discover what people need and how to take care of those needs appropriately. Everyone has a story, and they all are worth hearing. Therapy is a great gateway towards developing a voice and having it be heard.
- Lean in to the stress. This cannot be emphasized enough. As you practice awareness and acceptance of your emotional experiences as well as acceptance of the emotional states of others, and by creating safe space for feelings to be processed, it is important that you fully experience your emotional distress, and ultimately learn from it. Rather than avoiding the painful feelings, or eliminating the perceived threat that is causing the stress, lean into the stress. This requires you to observe and experience the feeling in your body, observe the thoughts that arise, observe how you are responding to them, visualize yourself facing head on the stress that you are experiencing.
Despite the common notion that with humans, stressful and life threatening events can lead to traumatization and mental illness, resiliency research has shown positive effects following stressful events. The way individuals perceive and respond to stressful or traumatic events, and utilize their resources and coping skills can predict later outcomes. This means that the steps above and others that you are taking to adapt and cope with the stress following the election, could in fact bring about a strengthening of your relationships, a stretching of your capacity to hold space for self and others in times of transition and uncertainty, and an increased awareness of your privilege and of cultural marginalization.
If you feel that you may benefit from professional help as a result of your experience of stress, consider reaching out to a therapist here at WILA. It is possible that your current experience of stress carries a meaningful message for you; and so, it may be useful to use this experience in order to better understand your feelings in general, your capacity to tolerate negative emotions, as well to enhance your capacity to lean into stress. Call us at (424) 371-5191 to schedule an intake with one of our intern therapists.