Expert's Coping Tips: The Election Is Over But The Stress Is Not

(RelaxingMusic/Flickr via Compfight)
(RelaxingMusic/Flickr via Compfight)

Experts often describe stress as a "fight or flight" response, explaining that your body is reacting as it would if you were being chased by a lion: heightened heart rate, hormones, brain chemicals.

Well, if you're a Hillary Clinton supporter who has been stressing out for the last few weeks about the tight presidential race, it's kind of like the lion just got you. And if you're a Donald Trump supporter, you may be gratified by his victory, but still deeply distressed by the division among your countrypeople and your loved ones.

So how do you cope — at the level of personal health, rather than politics?

I spoke with Dr. Ellen Slawsby, director of the Mind Body Pain Service at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. In her 20 years of practice, she says, she has never seen an election cause so much stress; for some, because it has been so prolonged and caused so many inter-personal conflicts, it has hit even higher levels than after the 9/11 attacks.

"Things like GI symptoms have escalated in some of my clients," she says. "Sleep disruption, shortness of breath, palpitations at times — especially, unfortunately, when they’re watching the news, often."

She has noticed a further uptick in symptoms of anger, distress and fear in many clients since the election, she says, and heard about families that feel even more split and unsure how to mend their ties. Even for people who got exactly the election outcome they wanted, Slawsby says, the stress has been so prolonged that for some people, it could take weeks for the physiological effects to pass. Some may even see new symptoms in the coming days.

Others may recover more quickly, but she sees no immediate let-up amid the protests and post-mortems. She predicts that for most, it will take a good four to six weeks for this peak of stress to dissipate, and for people to "come together and feel we're one country, and we can move forward in some way."

For the meantime, she recommends seeking social support, particularly talking with loved ones, to de-stress. And she offers these thoughts:

• "We have to remember that one of the pieces of stress is that it's a perception of a threat, and that it's a perception that we cannot cope, that we are overwhelmed by something. And we do have some control over that. We can contain our negative automatic thoughts. We can decrease the catastrophizing. We can keep stress from leading to depression and anxiety at higher levels. We can contain it. How do we do that? We can sustain relaxation a little more, reduce our heart rate, reduce our blood pressure, help ourselves feel better. The first thing to do is stop. Breathe. Reflect. And choose."

• "You can choose a response rather than having a knee-jerk reaction. Buddha said, 'We are what we think.' Let's think of ways that lead not toward suffering, but toward happiness and acceptance. What are the characteristics of happy individuals? They have positive thoughts despite what is happening. They don’t let negative circumstances define them. We can reappraise negative situations from a more positive perspective. We can reframe negative experiences to make deep and durable meaning, very important meaning."

What about the people who say, "It doesn't matter how I frame it, this is objectively bad"?

• "That’s where we have to say, 'Is it 100 percent true?' And if the answer is no, because we don’t know what the exact outcome will be over the coming years, then we have to do some wait-and-see. There were individuals who thought President Obama was going to be the worst thing in the world that ever happened for them, and it was not. So I think we have to have some balance in our thinking, and that’s what I’m trying to express here."

• "Also, really think about what is important. This has caused so much division among families and friends. Even this week, working with clients, I continued to hear about the strife that families and friends are going through. I think we have to look forward to the holidays, we have to look forward to a new and fresh start in the new year. We have to try to have respect for everyone and positive thoughts about the future. That is a true sign of resilience."

For people who are frustrated by the election results, what about taking action?

• "It’s faulty information processing if we feel we have no control. That’s the whole point of a democracy and of our voting system. Yes, the vote may not have gone in the direction some may have wanted or expected. However, that does not mean things are over. It’s looking at things as a challenge versus a threat, and feeling that we do still have some control versus feeling powerless. It’s inaccurate for us to think we are powerless and everything is a threat. This is not so."

More concretely, to speed a recovery from stress, aside from social support, what to do? 

Breathing techniques can help, Slawsby says, including "minis" — short diaphragmatic breathing sessions — perhaps using a mantra, breathing in "peace" and breathing out "tension" multiple times throughout the day to lower arousal. The Benson-Henry page on how to "Relax in a Hurry" is here.

And of course, there are the pillars of self-care: Good sleep, good nutrition, exercise, meditation.

Readers, tips that may help others cope with political stressors? 


Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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