The 2016 election has unleashed a wave of strong, difficult emotions, especially among those on the losing side. Many of them have taken to the streets in an outpouring of grief and rage at the result. While Donald Trump supporters may be coasting on a wave of elation, those who opposed him are wrestling with intense fears over what his presidency may bring.
The relentlessness of the ever-churning news cycle, not to mention the non-stop stream of tweets and status updates, may only entrench those feelings further. So what can you do if you’re feeling overwhelmed? Many of the practical steps you can take are common-sensical: exercise, see friends, be mindful, listen. And finally, when you’re ready, turn your feelings into action.
This kind of self-care works, psychologists say, because it helps to temper the intensity of the human brain’s response to stress. Fight or flight is great when what you fear is right in front of your face; the uncertainty of a new presidency—especially when the new president is someone as untested and unpredictable as Trump—is more vague and distant. If you perceive that uncertainty as a threat, then the stress you’re likely to face is more chronic and less easy to resolve. But self-care experts say there are still things you can do.
Get Out of Your Head
If you are experiencing despair, hopelessness, shock, or grief, they say, get out of your house. Go for a walk. Surround yourself with the people you love. Sleep, eat something healthy, drink water. Don’t read the news for a while if it’s upsetting you, unless it motivates you. Pause, if you can, to take stock of something good, something you are grateful for. Doing so will ground you outside the overwhelmingness of what you are feeling.
“Try to place today in the timeline of your life,” says Northeastern University psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett, author of the forthcoming book How Emotions Are Made. “Normally humans have a really broad time horizon—you can remember the past, the future, you can do mental time travel—but in moments that are very strong, your time horizon shrinks to right now.”
That small window can feel very hard to escape, Barrett says. Hemmed in tight, the source of fear looms ever larger.
Working toward what you see as positive social change can widen your perspective, but not everyone is able to take that step right away. People need one of two things when something devastating happens: either empathy or action, Barrett says. The key is to be patient with yourself and with the people around you.
Get Off Social Media
Being with people in times of stress can have profound physiological effects, such as regulating your breathing and heart rate. This can be incredibly helpful if you’re around people you trust and love. But being around people who don’t respect you can wreak havoc.
That’s what makes social media so fraught, especially at such a contentious time. All those calming physical sensations that can come from face-to-face contact, feelings that so powerfully counteract anxiety and sadness, are missing in digitally-mediated interactions. The body language is missing. The eye contact. As are the social contracts that govern in-person socializing.
“I notice that once I get people together in a room and we set a tone for respect, they don’t call each other names,” says Alicia Daniel, a law student and training director for advanced mediation at Harvard Law School. “In the end there is a certain line that they will not pass.” But that is not true on the internet, where social norms seem not to apply.
A day after the election some people on Facebook and Twitter began announcing they were going to delete the apps from their phones. And not just folks on one side–both Democrats and Republicans said they were opting out of this digital social world that has been the source of so much pre-election vitriol. Good, say the experts. Take a break from it. And such a break doesn’t need to be from all digital communication. Seek solace in text chains and email threads, where you can express yourself freely with people you trust.
Listen, Actually Listen
If you can’t bring yourself to leave social media behind, then at least try to be respectful. Don’t police people’s reactions in Facebook comments. Don’t reply to every tweet you disagree with.
“The fact that someone feels differently than you is not an invalidation of your feelings,” Barrett says. Let people feel what they feel. That doesn’t mean you need to agree with them. But use techniques like mirroring, where you repeat back to someone what they just said, to show them you understood their point. This is true online and IRL.
“It’s nodding to show you understand or asking follow-up questions,” Daniel says. “Maybe that’s something that Democrats failed to do, to ask, ‘Why do you feel that way?’” This lack of listening may be a key contributor to feeling of shock among Trump opponents at the result. By not asking the right questions, they failed to see this coming.
Now begins the process of trying to correct that.
So when your Republican friends express happiness on Facebook, listen. When your Democratic friends express anguish, listen. When your black friends express frustration over the shock among white Democrats at the pervasiveness of racism and sexism of America, listen. When your white friends express guilt, listen. When your immigrant friends express fear for what Trump’s America means for them, listen. When your women friends express terror at what this might mean for their bodies, listen. Or when they express joy that a woman they thought didn’t represent them lost, listen. When your male friends express sadness that the sexism of some does not represent them, listen. When children express worry, listen.
Daniels and her fellow mediators try to help facilitate that listening in their work. And ideally that’s what the United States could find right now: a national mediator. Daniels says that role usually falls to the president. President Obama seemed to try to provide that service in his speech on Wednesday. But since President-elect Trump is himself the source of so much of the current anxiety, Daniels thinks it’s unlikely that he could step into this role. In the absence of one great mediator, it seems, the country only has one other choice to fall back on: listening to each other.
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