How to Cope With Post-Election Stress

Many people are fearful and anxious about what President Trump could mean for America. Psychologists weigh in on how to manage that anxiety and move forward.

Two women hug as they watch election night returns at a Democratic gathering in Philadelphia
Rana Fayez, left, and Lisa Powell Graham hug as they watch national returns at an election night gathering for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Katie McGinty on November 8, 2016 in Philadelphia.  (Mel Evans / AP)

Collective trauma is “a shared experience of threat and anxiety in response to sudden or ongoing events that lead to some threat to a basic sense of belonging in society,” says Jack Saul, the director of the International Trauma Studies Program. “It usually is a disruption to the social and moral order.”

One could argue that those who opposed Donald Trump’s election have been through a collective trauma that has left them feeling rattled and afraid. Women and people of color have good reason to be anxious, given the sexist and racist things Trump said during the campaign, given his threats against the women who accused him of sexual assault, given how he has painted Mexicans as criminals, given that he was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, given so, so many things. People have very real fears rooted in policies Trump has promised to enact in office—including a ban on Muslim immigrants and the deportation of millions of immigrants.

It’s more than plausible to interpret the election of someone who openly espouses such views to the nation’s highest office as a disruption of the social and moral order.

Of course, this fear and anxiety is not universal—while many in the country mourned, Trump's supporters were celebrating. But the particular blow some felt on Election Day is only the tip of an iceberg of fear and anxiety that extends across the nation and across political divides. People felt threatened and anxious throughout the campaign, but “we’re seeing a fracture in our society which preceded the election,” Saul says. Collective trauma comes from not only sudden events like terrorist attacks or natural disasters, but also from “long-term chronic oppressions,” he says. The weight of institutional racism and sexism has weighed on Americans since long before Trump. Some white Americans already felt threatened by the loss of jobs and the diversification of their country. Trump’s election is just “an exacerbation of some basic factors that have already existed,” Saul says. “Now we’re at a dangerous point because when you have these kind of ruptures in society you can have healthy or unhealthy responses to these ruptures. Depending how the public reacts, and how the leaders react, it can lead to a regression to violence as a solution.”

Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, says she wouldn’t quite call the election a collective trauma for the anti-Trump set, but she thinks they are going through the stages of grief. “Both denial and anger—and we know that you don't go through those stages step by step anymore,” she says. “They get mixed up.”

McNaughton-Cassill studies stress management and emotional distress, and while she’s looked more at disasters like 9/11 than political outcomes, her research suggests that a shocking event like this isn’t likely to plunge people into a long-term depression. “I did not find that 9/11 made people clinically depressed or anxious, who were not [already] depressed or anxious,” she says. “It affected mood, it didn’t affect mental health.”

To take care of themselves and improve their mood after the election, there are all kinds of things people can do, from deep breathing to listening to music to reading poetry to playing sports to walking in nature. Of course, it’s important to take care of your basic health needs—hydrating, eating well, getting enough sleep and physical activity. But Saul thinks that “the problem has been that there’s been so much focus on self care that it’s become the primary focus,” when actually, relying solely on yourself after a collective trauma is probably the worst thing one could do.

“Isolation makes people more vulnerable,” he said. “[Collective trauma] has an impact on people’s relationships—the stress people feel can be expressed in irritability and conflict can develop between people. Strengthening connections with families, communities, and organizations is the most important preventive approach.”

At an individual level, people can check in on their families, friends, and coworkers, to see how they’re doing, and host gatherings or create opportunities for people to socialize and be together. They can donate or help organize or volunteer at charities, organizations, or religious groups that work in their cities and neighborhoods, though Saul writes in a forthcoming paper that to promote “community resilience,” it’s important to “to work with change agents or ‘links’ from within a community because of their greater access to local knowledge and understanding of members’ needs and preferred coping strategies.”

Ultimately, taking action is likely the biggest thing people can do to combat the anxiety and fear they may feel while waiting for Trump’s inauguration, and after. A trap that it’s easy to fall into is what psychologists call “counterfactual regret”—thinking of all the ways an outcome could have been prevented, how the world could be different if people had just done something different.

“Of course that’s all we’re doing today,” McNaughton-Cassill told me when we spoke the day after the election. “If only more people had voted, if only the media hadn't said [Hillary Clinton] was ahead, if only, if only. But the research shows that counterfactual regret doesn’t do you much good going forward.”

Instead, she suggests an acronym from the book Rapid Relief from Emotional Distress: ACT. “A” is for “accept reality”—stop engaging in counterfactual regret.

“This is the reality. For whatever reason, he won,” she says.

“C” is for “create a vision”—“‘Forget it, it’s over, I'll move to Canada’ is not really a solution,” she says. “The vision needs to be: How are we going to make sure we protect things that are important to us?”

And then “T” is for “take action.” Whether that’s getting civically engaged, running for local office, doing charity work, protesting, writing, or just being there for loved ones—whatever makes you feel like you’re working toward the vision of a reality you want.

“I think that picking a cause that you think may be threatened and getting involved will be a way to feel like you’re not just watching bad things happen,” McNaughton-Cassill says. And she believes this three-step process is going to be helpful for Democrats and Republicans, Trump supporters and non-supporters, going forward. “A lot of expectations people had [of Trump], he may not be able to deliver on. That’s a reality of being president, you can’t get everything done. And so they’re going to have to think about how they’re going to cope with that reality.”

Donald Trump is not yet the president. The only thing that has changed is our knowledge of his election, and what we expect that means for the future. And for those who opposed him, there is an inevitable stress in waiting for that future to arrive.

“I think that collective trauma has not only to do with what has just happened but what one anticipates can happen as well,” Saul says.

For those who anticipate hardship, taking this election as a call to arms could help them cope.

“I think probably a lot of people in this country take democracy for granted,” McNaughton-Cassill says. “It might be a time [now] where if you want to really stand up for something you might have to do more than just donate a little bit of money. I don’t know if I think that's horribly bad.”