Regardless of where you stand politically, it’s hard to deny that the 2016 presidential election was one of the most divisive and stress-inducing we’ve seen in recent history. Just how bad was it? In October, the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America study found that more than half of American adults—55 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of Republicans surveyed—considered the election “a very or somewhat significant source of stress.” Major publications like USA Today and The Boston Globe have even likened post-election stress to post-traumatic stress disorder. Democrats and Republicans alike have suffered splits in families and friendships, and continue to wrestle with lingering uncertainty, anxiety, and tension. But none of this comes as a surprise to most therapists, who’ve been on the front lines of treating post-election stress. Here are some valuable lessons they’ve taken away from their recent work helping clients in these post-election times.
1) Validate, validate, validate
"The day after the election, many people were either shut down or extremely activated, especially the trauma survivors I work with. Many of the Democrats I see felt ambushed—they’d been told they’d be safe, and that nothing was going to happen. But then they were hearing things like 'What’s done is done. Just move on and make the best of things,' which can be a pretty invalidating thing to hear. After the election, I knew I had to find a way to give hope to my clients who needed it. I had to be an enlightened visitor, a confident protector, and a compassionate comforter. I work with immigrants, some of whom are refugees. One had recently immigrated and was worried he might have to return to his war-torn home country. Another had a parent who’d been in the Japanese internment camps during World War II. And another, a Jewish client, who had a relative who’d survived the Holocaust, was worried given the stories that the Trump administration might take inventories of minority Americans. In these moments, I help my clients feel as empowered as possible. I help them find ways to say 'I don’t like that' or 'I don’t want this.' For many of my minority clients, that’s an empowering statement they couldn’t make before. Then I make a connection. I ask them, 'What’s it like to have someone sit with you who gets what you’re going through and validates your experience?'”
- Anita Mandley, psychotherapist of 33 years, Illinois
2) Don’t be afraid to call out the Chicken Littles
“Sometimes our clients’ concerns aren’t realistic. And while we can’t always say this outright and invalidate their concerns, we also can’t say everything is okay, because we don’t know that. There’s no guarantee that some of the things they’re worried about—deportations or registries, for example—won’t happen. But we have to help our clients avoid catastrophizing. Most of the anxiety I’m seeing is related to my clients’ personal struggles. One of my gay clients told me he was scared all gay people were going to be deported under a Trump administration. I responded by asking if he’d heard of any instances where that had been reported. He couldn’t recall any. People may be deported, and Trump may be no fan of gay rights, but gay people aren’t going anywhere. Among many of my clients, the sense of threat is overgeneralized.”
- Stephen Holland, psychotherapist of 25 years, Washington, DC
3) For some, post-election stress is retraumatizing
“Our clients aren’t crazy for feeling this strongly about something. I work with several clients who are sexual assault survivors. For one of these clients, hearing Donald Trump’s hot mic comments on the leaked Access Hollywood tape was extremely triggering. Even just seeing a Trump sign on someone’s lawn caused her to break down. After the election, she cried for days, even sobbing in my waiting room. She kept saying things like 'How could this have happened? What’s happening to our country?' I tell these clients that what they’re experiencing is a trauma response. It’s validating when someone says, 'You know, the response you’re having right now makes sense. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that it troubles you deeply that the president-elect is someone who has publicly bragged that he could grope women. You’re not wrong.' If a bear bites your leg, you go into shock. You become numb, and that takes time to wear off. For some clients, those are feelings that they're struggling with—numbness, dissociation, and denial—which are all trauma responses.”
- Kirsten Lind Seal, psychotherapist of 8 years, Minneapolis
4) Anger is healthy. Just use it wisely.
“Helplessness is the hallmark of depression. If you feel like Trump is going to marginalize women and minorities, you can combat that by volunteering for organizations that protect the rights of these groups. When I’m working with clients anxious or angry about the outcome of the election, I find it can be helpful to do a little psychoeducation. In some cases, I tell them that anxiety is actually nature’s way of mobilizing us to take action, and anger is a tool we’ve been given to deal with what we interpret as injustice. When we’re confronted with an injustice, our energy literally rises. We’re preparing for that fight or flight. We’re preparing for action. And if the action is healthy, then it’s totally appropriate. For instance, if an angry client decides to get involved in the local political system or work for a grassroots organization dedicated to change, that’s using anger constructively. We have to get out of the mindset of just using deep breathing to assuage anger. Let’s actually use it as a healthy tool to encourage action.”
- Chloe Carmichael, psychotherapist of 5 years, New York
5) We all need to extend the olive branch
“The real grief of this campaign is that I’ve heard so many people say they’ve lost someone they cared about. My Democrat and Republican clients are saying things like, 'I’ve lost something I was invested in. That person was my friend. Before the campaign, I loved that person.' Many of my clients who voted for Trump are embarrassed to say so. They’re even agreeing with people who criticize him just to avoid getting into conflict. Everyone deserves to be listened to—regardless of political affiliation. Eventually, we should be asking each other, 'What are your concerns? What are your fears?' Just criticizing isn’t going to get us anywhere. In the end, we have to explore ways we can solve problems without screaming at each other. This whole experience can be a chance for us to ask ourselves how we’d like to see things in the next election, and what we can personally do to make that happen.”
- Elaine Ducharme, psychotherapist of 30 years, Connecticut
6) Things will get better
“I work in Jersey City. It’s the largest gay community in New Jersey. Almost two weeks after the election, Hudson Pride, a community organization working on behalf of transgender rights, held an evening ceremony to mark the Transgender Day of Remembrance. The organizers expected maybe a dozen people to attend, and when I got to the headquarters, only a few people were there. But then something amazing happened. Slowly, more and more people trickled in until we had almost 50 attendees, so many that we couldn’t fit everyone in the room. The cisgender attendees actually outnumbered the transgender ones. For hours, people chatted over dinner and told jokes as if they’d known each other forever. At the end of the night, we filed into the parking lot next door and made a big circle. Everyone held hands and lit candles, and then we read aloud the names of every trans person who’d been killed in hate crimes over the past year—87. It reminded me of the AIDS movement in the 1980s all over again. Knowing we had support from outside our community sustained us then, and it sustains us now. Just showing up like that can provide a sense of safety to people who really need it. These days, that’s what I’m trying to do in my therapy work. It might be a hell of a way to get unity, but if we’re seeing this level of cohesion, I think we’re going to be okay.”
- Margie Nichols, psychotherapist of 33 years, New Jersey
Did you enjoy this article? You might also like "The 2016 Election Is Raising Ethical Questions for Therapists," in which the psychotherapy field's leading figures weigh in on the presidential election, and the wider mission of the citizen therapist.
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