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The Emotional Aftermath of Elections: Key Coping Skills

Dawn O’Malley — November 8, 2018 — 4 min read
In the days following Election Day in America, many of us may be feeling the mental and emotional toll of living in a democracy. You are not alone if the months-long barrage of political ads and non-stop bickering on your TV and social media have left you worn out.  You may even count strained relationships with friends and family among the casualties of election season.

The stress caused by politics and elections is real. In fact, a new study from San Francisco State University showed that for some young adults, the 2016 presidential race caused symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Likewise, over 60% of people who took part in the American Psychological Association’s newest "Stress in America" survey  called today’s political climate “a significant source of stress.”

As a psychologist studying empathy, I’ve come across research that reveals it’s hard for even the most empathic individuals to tolerate the views of people with different political beliefs. This came as a surprise to me and led me to think more about why this is the case. I decided that fear must be at least part of the reason. Fear is the emotion most likely to cause the thinking parts of the brain to shut down and let feelings to take over.

Fear takes a tremendous toll on our physical and emotional well-being. So, for the sake of everyone’s well-being, it’s time for Americans to take a deep breath and do a few things to reduce the stress. 
  • Stop and think. If you find yourself ready to rear-end the car in front of you because it is covered in political stickers, take a minute to ask yourself, “Why am I so angry?”  The answer may help you to calm down.  If “Those stickers are rude,” is the answer, you may remind yourself that the man in front of you has the right to express his opinion or that you don’t have to look at them.
  • Prepare for conversations. It may seem like there’s no way out of a stress-inducing conversation when politics are involved. However, having a statement ready to go can really help. Try something as simple as: “I want us to have a great day today. Let’s not talk about politics.” Remember to practice saying it aloud a few times, it will be easier to use when the time comes. 
  • Go to your happy place. While taking steps to avoid a political conversation may work a lot of the time, it is unlikely to work all of the time. If you find yourself truly stuck in a conversation that is causing you to become upset, try a few on-the-spot calming techniques. For example, create a picture in your mind of your ideal vacation spot, add as much detail as possible. Or try to focus on only one thing, like the way your shoes feel on your feet.  
  • Take action. Feeling overwhelmed or even helpless is one of the experiences that contribute to stress. Doing something reduces our sense of helplessness and, therefore, reduces stress. Put a few signs up in your yard, vote and encourage a few friends to come along. Your actions don’t need to be political to reduce the stress. Do something that makes you feel good like decorating for the holidays, taking a walk, reading a book. 
  • Take a break from social media and news. The news and entertainment industry is so competitive these days, screaming seems to be the only way to get people’s attention. Political debates overheat on television and social media. If you find your heart racing each time you turn on the television or log on to Facebook, consider taking a break from it for a while. A day or two away from all the bickering could make a world of difference.
Most of all, it’s important to keep everything in perspective. Political beliefs are just one part of who we are and we have so many more parts in common than in difference. I choose to focus on those.
About the Author:
Dawn O’Malley is a Licensed Psychologist at Cardinal Innovations Healthcare, and specializes in brain development.
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