Decompressing after a Divisive Election

Limit time on social media or watching post-election coverage

The moments that stretched her to her professional limits came immediately after the 2016 presidential election. As a psychotherapist, Kendra A. O'Hora, Ph.D., owner of Wellness & Co., had to help her patients process the overwhelming emotions that they were experiencing after that tumultuous political season.

“That day was the hardest day of my career,” she said.

This year’s election however, has been much worse, notes O’Hora. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my therapy office,” she said. “For the first time ever, we are offering appointments this week specifically for those who are struggling to process.”

The divisive 2020 election season has been a source of significant tension, not only locally, but nationwide. Nearly 70 percent of adults in the United States report feelings of stress as a result of this year’s cycle, according to a study by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Adding the recent racial unrest and the coronavirus pandemic that’s caused record deaths and wreaked havoc on the economy, the current environment — with no relief in sight — has left three out of four adults anxious about the nation’s future. The current political season provides the perfect storm for mental health issues that will last for decades, say local mental health professionals.

It’s understandable to feel stressed, overwhelmed, exhausted, and anxious right now, says Heather V. Ganginis Del Pino, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Montgomery College. “If your feelings start to interfere with your everyday life and if having those feelings are causing you distress, you might want to seek help from a professional, if one is available to you,” she said.

Shock, anger, relief, disillusionment and even neutrality are all normal at this time, suggests Fairfax therapist Jana Wu, LCSW. “Emotions might run the gamut and might shift as the days progress or after engaging in dialogue with others.”

“You may be asking yourself, ‘What’s normal to feel right now?’” added O'Hora. “The long and short of it? Everything. Most people know that anger, frustration, annoyance, and stress are what we like to call iceberg or secondary emotions. In a sense, they are what’s on the surface, when there’s oh so much more underneath.”

Social support is important, particularly for those without access to mental health therapy, added Del Pino. “It can feel good to help someone else, so check in on friends and family that you know are struggling or donate your time to a cause that is important to you,” she said.

Limiting the amount of time one spends on social media or watching post-election coverage can help ease feelings of distress, said Wu. “Take in material that inspires and speaks to your values,” she said. “Speak to and engage with community that also shares your values about next action steps to take. Practice self-care and care for others in your community, environment, and home. I personally meditate and listen to sources that inspire me to engage in life in a thoughtful way.”

Focus on the bigger picture advises therapist Steven Rosenberg, Ph.D.

“Avoid contentious situations and confrontations over political differences,” he said. “You are not going to change anyone’s mind. Remember, just as you have your own political views, others are entitled to have theirs. Let them. The issues facing our country can’t be resolved in one election. Volunteer for an organization that is working on an issue or cause that you feel strongly about.”

Decompress by showing yourself compassion and withholding self-judgement, says Del Pino. This could mean making sure you take care of yourself though exercise and sleep, she said. “You can spend breaks doing something you enjoy or just breathe while giving yourself time to notice your own feelings and thoughts. If you are feeling stressed or anxious about the outcome of the election, acknowledge your stressful feelings and thoughts but also try to notice any feelings that might be hiding under the anxiety and stress.

It’s important for parents to recognize and help children process intense emotions, says Del Pino. “Help children process their feelings by simply asking them how they feel. Let them know you are there if they need to talk,” she said. “While acknowledging that this is a stressful time in our country, parents should avoid expressing their own opinions. If you have young kids, limit the amount of news you are watching with them around and instead play a game, sit with them while they do homework, engage them in conversation, or do something active together. “

Maintaining a consistent daily schedule, particularly with regard to sleep, suggests. Del Pino. “[It] is so important, especially during times of stress,” she said. “If your child is having trouble sleeping, or if you are, encourage your child to read something fun before bed or download one of the many free mindfulness or sleep applications that will help your child get in the mood for sleep.”

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