Post-Traumatic Election Syndrome?
What a long, strange election season it's been. I’ve been experiencing more and more clients feeling anxious, sleepless, triggered and even obsessed with the current national election (I’ve had some of those moments myself). There seems to be more hostility and fear floating in the air, like a haze of politically-tainted pollution. More than one person has mentioned wanting to move out of the country! A study by the American Psychological Association showed that 52% of adults surveyed say the 2016 election is a very or somewhat significant source of stress in their lives.
Elections are stressful—this one in particular. They’re exciting with the possibilities for improving the future, but they have a unique way of bringing our underlying fear, anger, and other unpleasant emotions to the surface. There are several reasons for this:
*Elections shift the nation’s attention to the negative. Elections tend to be problem-focused, so while those problems are often real, we may get an exaggerated sense of the immediacy & depth of those problems, or we may forget to also notice what is going well.
*Elections can trigger our past struggles and trauma. For example:
-Bickering candidates & supporters can be resonant of parents fighting—only this time, instead of Mommy & Daddy attacking one another, it’s the whole country.
-People who have been impacted by sexual violence/harassment may have trauma responses triggered by hearing about incidents of assault, negative attitudes towards women, and dismissive attitudes by people in power.
-As a country, we have collective trauma of 9/11 and other terrorism, wars, shootings, economic recession, and racial tension/conflict, etc.
When past trauma is triggered, we can go into our brain’s limbic system—or “animal brain” (the part that doesn’t benefit from rational/complex thought), and start operating out of a “fight, flight or freeze” response. No wonder civil conversation becomes difficult!
*Social media has allowed people to “self-select” their own news sources, and also tends to reduce people’s civility in communication (people say things online that they would never say in person). So not only do we think the “other side” is more unreasonable, crazy or stupid than ever before, but there’s an increased experience of rude, dismissive, or degrading conversation around these topics. Not a winning combination.
*An election can trigger real fear and anxiety about the future, and about what could happen if one’s candidate loses. While yes, some of the potential scenarios are pretty scary, we sometimes forget that both candidates and the media gain more attention and support by focusing on people’s fears, by promoting all-or-nothing thinking, and by highlighting the most sensational aspects of the race. Getting us into “fight/flight” mode is often a successful motivator! The narrative that “they’re out to get you” wins candidates more votes, but it’s exhausting and taxing on us voters. No wonder we’re exhausted, sad, angry and depleted—or will be, post-election.
OK, I can hear the Debbie-Downer “wahh-wonk” trumpet playing in the background…
But wait, there’s good news. There are some positive things we can do to counteract the triggers and tension of a crazy/hostile election year, and it doesn’t even have to be post-election.
I’m going to first focus on your own self-care, then discuss how to engage with others. (Remember, the flight attendants always say to put your own oxygen mask on first, before helping your neighbor with theirs…).
*My mantra for clients dealing with overwhelming emotions is “soothe & distract.” Know what your favorite soothing activities are, or the activities that simply distract you from any rumination or obsessing that may set in, and DO them. Schedule your self care or it may fall by the wayside. (see questions below)
*Tend to your body. All that anger and fear is tiring. Get sleep. Eat good food. Do your favorite exercise.
*Beauty and Nature are healing. Aesthetically pleasing things like art and nature are a reminder of goodness and the eternal; on some level they’re a reminder that we are part of something bigger than our petty politics. Studies show that even looking at a tree out the window for a few minutes has a healing effect on our bodies and minds. Engage with beauty. Listen to music, gaze at art, go for a hike, read poetry. Notice the calm that sets in.
*Take Media Breaks. Remember that the media, while vitally important, also keeps our attention by focusing on the most alarming/sensational aspects of what’s happening. With a 24-hour news cycle, and constant access to the news through smartphones, we really are taxing our brains and our attention. Set clear boundaries around media consumption, including regular media-breaks.
*Seize election-season as an opportunity to delve into your deepest values, getting clear on what is important to you and why. What are the values or issues that you care deeply about, and why? How do these reflect on your own life-journey? Regardless of election outcome, what can you do to promote these values in your own life or in your community?
*Pray. Remember, elections are good at convincing that everything rests on this one moment in time, or on this one future-president. Small thinking. We need to take time to focus on the larger Story that we are all a part of. In the midst of political vitriol, we need to connect with the source of goodness, benevolence, grace and love—and to tune into how we can become agents of love for others.
*Know what you can and can’t control. It is very, very, very hard to change someone’s mind once they’ve “synced up” with their chosen “tribe”. Confirmation bias is the phenomenon where, once we’ve chosen a position, we tend to filter all information through the lens of that position. Trying to change someone’s mind, especially through raising your voice or back-and-forth on social media, is an extremely difficult undertaking— one that rarely bears fruit. What you can control in relationships with others is how you talk to them, how you treat them while disagreeing, and how much time and energy you put into engaging in debate (hint: stop before you want to pull your hair out or punch someone in the face).
*Pre-forgive. If you’re heading into a gathering (ex. holiday dinner) where you know family members or friends may say things that you disagree with— or even find reprehensible— try to forgive them in your heart ahead of time, knowing that even if there’s discussion or confrontation, you are bringing a spirit of love and not hatred to that discussion. Try to imagine that in their own way (no matter how twisted it seems), they’re probably doing the best they can— and have good intentions.
*Be an agent of love. Even if you’re in an argument/debate, check your ego. Is this about winning, or about trying to promote truth that is based in love? Are you speaking in a way that this person trusts your good intentions for them, regardless of whether you think their position is wrong? Are you "praying for your enemies", even if you really, really, really disagree with them?
*Know how to engage or disengage. If you’re going to engage in political discussion, practice listening just as much as you’re speaking. Listening reduces defensiveness (and it doesn’t mean that you’re agreeing). Don’t listen just to “wait your turn”, listen to really hear what they’re saying. Simple ways to disagree without insulting or attacking. “I disagree.” “I don’t see the truth in that” (I love that statement from author Patti Digh). “I think we should table this discussion until we’re both calmer.” Or you could always just put on some Adele…
*Be aware that they may be triggered. You may be talking to someone in “fight/fight/freeze” mode (see above). If they seem flooded or overwhelmed, don’t push the issue. It’s okay to let it go.
Regardless of what happens on Election Day, be aware that getting off the “roller coaster” of political drama can be strangely difficult. As much as we can get election-fatigue, some part of us may also miss the drama and anticipation of this strange season once it’s over; life may seem a little boring for a while. If so, that’s a GOOD sign. As you “detox” from this time, get lots of rest, pursue healing and connection (and humor!) with those around you, and recalibrate to life being less chaotic. You’ll need to save your energy for the next one…
Questions for reflection:
What are 3 of your favorite soothing activities? (ex. reading, time with friends, hot bath, etc.)
What are 3 things that help you distract from your thoughts? (ex. movies, focused activities, fiction books).
What are 3 ways you can engage with nature, art, or other beauty this week? (ex. go to an art gallery, listen to a favorite album or playlist, go for a walk among the Fall leaves, go to a concert, cook a meal from scratch, play with your dog, etc.)
What are some basic boundaries you can set around media consumption? (ex. “media sabbath” one day a week, only checking news 1x/day, setting time-limits on social media).
What are the values or issues that you care deeply about, and why? How do these reflect on your own life-journey? Regardless of election outcome, what can you do to promote these values in your own life or in your community?