This election has been “gnawing at us” as a nation, say specialists in mental health and trauma. But take a deep breath: Whatever the outcome, there are things you can do to ease the path for yourself and your family.
Ali Alderson is worried already and the election results aren’t even in.
The 20-year-old University of Washington student knows that no matter who wins, half of our deeply divided country will be mourning and the other half, well, they may be grieving as well.
“There’s not going to be a sigh of relief once we know who it is,” said Alderson, who admits she’s “unfriended” people on Facebook over their political beliefs. “There’s so much anger, and that anger is not going to go away.”
Practice good self-care
Sabrina Rood, an Edmonds-based counselor, gives the following tips to struggling patients:
1. Identify what brings you joy and do it, whether it’s making music, listening to music, creating art, meditating, yoga, looking at pictures of nature or baby animals.
3. Take time to see friends and laugh.
4. Get good sleep.
5. Turn off the electronic devices.
She is not alone in feeling bruised, confused and dismayed about the bitter and long-running political battle that has dominated our national landscape. Nor is she alone in her fearful anticipation of what may happen once the ballots are counted.
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Experts in mental health, trauma and grief say this political season has inflicted deep wounds on the individual and collected consciousness of many, even some who may not even recognize their pain.
According to Philip Cushman, a Seattle-area psychotherapist, the nation is already working its way through the stages of grief described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her landmark work on death and dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
“We don’t have to wait until after the election,” he said. “We are grieving right now and going through a massive depression. We are so bitterly divided, that there is really a profound and terrifying despair.”
Doug Zatzick, a psychiatrist at Harborview Medical Center, describes the election distress as more of a “traumatic stress” event.
“The whole election has been a stress trigger that’s gnawing at us,” Zatzick said.
Zatzick said people correctly feel there is a lot at stake.
“People who care about the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms, first-generation Americans who could face deportation, women who are concerned about sexual violence, and people who care about the Supreme Court justices. There are a lot of very intense issues attached to this election,” he said.
While Zatzick said he is not assuming that there may be an eruption of postelection violence, he said he and others who deal with trauma are not necessarily ruling it out either.
“We’ve already seen political violence at some of the rallies, and we know that intense elation and intense loss are great setups for violence,” Zatzick said.
Merna Ann Hecht, a storyteller, poet, author and teaching artist who has worked with children facing loss, said, “We are in the middle of having a national nervous breakdown, and we can lose people to drugs, suicide and homicide if we don’t help them walk through their grief and loss.”
How to get through it
While there are no easy answers, according to the experts, there are things we can do as individuals to help prepare ourselves and family members today for what lies on the horizon:
• Keep things in perspective. “Remind yourself that you are OK; Seattle is safe and that Washington state is safe and did not split down the middle around the mountains. Everything’s OK,” Zatzick said.
• Know yourself. Know what presses your buttons, raises your blood pressure or gets you going in a bad way. Imagine yourself waking up to the news that your candidate won or lost. Now imagine yourself having a sane and calm reaction.
• Watch out for signs of dysregulation or distress, said Zatzick. An extra few glasses of wine or a couple extra hours of video-game escape is fine for a few days, but look out for signs that you are slipping into chronic destructive or isolating behaviors. Don’t be afraid to seek help from medical professionals.
• Don’t get into debates. Period.
• Don’t assign blame. “We are all part of this political system, but we have a profound ideology of self containment and a strong tendency in this country to look for someone to blame. What we should be thinking about is not whose fault it is but how did we all get to the point where we have two candidates that are disliked,” Cushman said.
• Set up boundaries for how you will use social media and stick to them.
• Talk to people who think like you do. Never underestimate the importance of a sympathetic ear.
• Talk to people who don’t think like you do, and pay special attention to listening without judgment or vitriol.
Tell your story, listen to others’
Receptive listening, and storytelling, are undervalued and underpracticed skills in our society, according to Hecht, who uses fairy tales and legends in her work to reach wounded children.
Because of that, “we do not know how to grieve collectively,” she said. “If we can relearn that, it is very comforting to people.”
Among the stories Hecht uses to reach hurt people is an obscure piece by the Brothers Grimm called “The Bearskinner,” in which an injured and dejected soldier makes a pact with the devil that garners him gold but compels him to eschew bathing, haircuts and prayer, and to wear a bear skin.
He is on the verge of drowning himself in despair when he hears a hungry woman and a child crying and begins to throw his gold toward them.
“It’s a story of compassion and generosity over greed, and it feels like a story for our time,” she said.
She also tells stories about children who have to overcome fear in order to regain something lost and stories that help people listen with compassion for all the characters.
“Every single one of us will experience the inevitability of loss,” Hecht says. “Stories help teach children, and adults, how to tolerate ambiguity and understand that things aren’t black and white.”
Regardless of what you do, none of the experts is promising that anything will be easy these coming weeks. Facing things calmly is a discipline for many of us, but it’s an important life skill, the experts say. Master it now, and it will serve you well in other times of crisis.
“This is going to be extremely difficult whichever way it goes,” Cushman said. “If we can remember that anger comes from hurt, fear and disappointment, then we may be able to see our fellow citizens not as enemies but as people worthy of compassion. We have to figure out how to talk to each other and work out our problems.”
A little optimism, as far-fetched as that sounds, couldn’t hurt either, said Zatzick.
“I’m hoping whoever wins turns out better than the other side fears and can bring this country together.”
Alderson, the UW student, acknowledges the country’s divided citizenry needs to be willing to reconcile at some point down the road.
“We need to heal, but political conversations are never beneficial; each person just keeps talking about what they believe and not really listening. Maybe listening will have to be part of it.”