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Psychologists offer coping tips after this election

Two women comforted each other as they reacted to the voting results on Election Night.
Two women comforted each other as they reacted to the voting results on Election Night.John Moore/Getty Images

Psychologist Jason Evan Mihalko started getting texts from his patients in the middle of the night as the election results came in — people scared and overwhelmed by the news of Donald J. Trump’s presidential victory.

Dawn Cisewski, an assistant teaching professor at Northeastern University, said some students were feeling so distressed they couldn’t come to class Wednesday.

In other parts of the country, celebrations may be under way, but for many in Massachusetts, the shock of the 2016 presidential election is nothing short of traumatic, according to several psychologists. Mihalko likened Trump’s election to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the way it changed the world and made many feel unsafe.

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“People of color, women, trauma survivors, LGBT people are having a physiological flight-or-fight response,” he said. “A lot of the rhetoric has been very negative. People in those groups are experiencing it as a threat.”

Lisa Y. Livshin, a Newton psychologist and Tufts Medical School faculty member, said people’s responses to the election remind her of survivors she has treated at disasters. “It’s like a collective trauma for a lot of people,” she said. Some of her patients were having nightmares even before the election. Now, she advises them, “Just be really gentle with yourself right now.”

Here are several coping tips offered by psychologists:

Take a break. Turn off the television and social media. Don’t follow the news every minute. “It’s OK to kind of pack this up and put it on the shelf,” said Mihalko, who advises absorbing the information in small doses going forward.

Take care of yourself. Accept your feelings of fear and anxiety but don’t let them consume your life. “Utilize those coping resources that have helped you through difficult times in the past,” advises Cisewski, president of the Massachusetts Psychological Association. That can mean going out for a walk, gathering with friends, doing yoga or deep breathing, or pursuing other calming activities.

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“When we’re in the fight-or-flight response, we can’t engage in critical thinking,” Mihalko said. “It’s hard to develop plans.”

Take action. Find a way to make a difference. Join organizations, write letters, hold up signs, talk with friends, become engaged with a social movement, Mihalko advises. “When people feel most powerful and most centered is when they feel like they have a sense of agency,” he said.

Cisewski said it’s easy “to get stuck in the quagmire of what just happened. This is the reality. There’s nothing we can do to change it. What can I do now to be productive? . . . Being solution-focused and using this as an area for motivation is going to be important for a lot of people.”

Try to understand what happened. Cisewski said that while people in Boston are weeping, her friends in the Midwest are celebrating. “It’s important to recognize that we have a divided country and how best to change that,” she said.

Each side has scorned the other, whether it’s the right attacking immigrants and liberals, or the left ridiculing the denizens of “flyover country,” Mihalko said.

“We all need to be gentle with each other and curious about each other’s experiences,” he said.


Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer