Election Stress: It’s OK To Not Feel OK — Tips For Coping

“There is a crack, a crack in everything
 That’s how the light gets in.
 That’s how the light gets in.
 That’s how the light gets in.”

 ~ Leonard Cohen

Virtually overnight, the world has changed. Since the dramatic shift occurring after the 2016 presidential election, I’ve been stumbling along, alternating between numbness and various more intense emotions. And I know I’m not alone. We are certainly now living in unsettling and uncertain times.

Ironically, just a few weeks ago, I began to write a blog about how stress led me to have an accident that could have resulted in a severe injury. It began, “One day recently, I fell to my knees. No, I wasn’t having a religious experience. I walked out of my front door in a hurry, forgot there was a step down, flew threw the air for a moment, and landed knees-first onto the cement porch. After looking around to see if anyone had noticed my acrobatics, I stood up and felt my legs, back, neck, and head to make sure that nothing was broken or out of place, then pulled up my pant legs to assess the damage to my knees. I then had only a few moments to patch up my bloody left knee and be on my way to work. Although I suffered little more than a skinned knee, I felt shaken to my core.”

The evening just prior to my accident, I had the thought, “I think I’ve reached my limit.” I had been feeling depleted because of my angst about the upcoming presidential election, as well as the ups and downs of my own workload. Additionally, I was trying to stay focused on following my dreams while remaining compassionate with clients who came for help with their traumas. My self-care had not been sufficient to deal with the stress, and I had become worn out, was acting mindlessly rather than with mindfulness. In my blog, which I never got to finish because everything changed, I wrote some tips for dealing with the stress, based on what I learned from literally falling to my knees. However, now, rather than feeling strong, having survived my fall without injury and using all of my own tips to stay centered, my legs have become wobbly once again.
 
 Most of us were shocked by the results of this election, including the winner, whose team revealed that they didn’t expect to win and were scrambling to make plans. Whether you feel happy or distressed about the election results, the transition we’re entering into because of it will be dramatic and that level of alteration, happening so rapidly in our environment, is likely to bring a large amount of anxiety with it for everyone. “Stress” is, in fact, any change that we must adjust to, whether it’s a change that we believe is positive or one that we believe is negative.

It’s important to remember that there have been dark periods in this country before. My mom told me about how she and my dad managed to “muddle” through such times. The 1950s were dark, with Jim Crow laws still strong in the South, and everyone suspicious of their neighbors throughout the nation. Some faced dire consequences when speaking out against the injustices. The 1960s were chaotic, and although many great advances in human rights were made (and not to mention awesome music), it was not without tremendous struggle and growing pains. In the 1970s, our nation was divided, and there was copious danger in my own neighborhood, with crime-rates skyrocketing in New York City where I grew up. My parents remained strong and continued to savor life, in spite of these large obstacles. Because of this, I believe that, somehow, we all can get through this as well.

I’ve been searching for tools to cope and to come out of this stronger, as well as to help others heal and become empowered during this time. We each have an inner light that’s always burning brightly and can get us through even the most shaky of times.

1. Be present.
 We cannot change how we feel, nor can we make any improvements in the world, if we aren’t present and awake. We need to, first of all, stay present with whatever we’re feeling. Psychotherapist, writer, and teacher, Dr. Dave Richo, author of the book, The Five Things We Cannot Change…and the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them, wrote about what the spiritual masters taught centuries ago, “Pain is a given of life.” If we avoid feeling our pain, he pointed out, it will cause greater suffering. We need to stay mindful of what we are experiencing, allowing our selves to feel what we feel. This leads to greater compassion and helps us to then be part of the solution.

It’s O.K. to feel that everything is not alright or that it won’t “all work out.” It’s important to be authentic with what we really are experiencing and to honor that. I wholeheartedly believe in finding peace within a storm. And, it’s also important to acknowledge that there is a storm, as well as some of the less peaceful sentiments we might have about it. Only with this type of awareness and radical acceptance, the accepting of life the way it is, even if it’s painful, can we overcome the suffering that comes with the pain and begin to make good decisions about how we can have a positive impact in spite of a painful situation. If we’re present with our sadness, fear, anger, or whatever painful emotions we may have, the intensity will eventually decrease, and we can then become more creative and enthusiastic about working to overcome some of the challenges we see around us or in our own lives. “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional,” goes the Buddhist proverb.

For those who feel the urge to say, “don’t worry, everything will be fine,”, please restrain yourself. There are many of us who doubt that everything will be fine, and the effect of such a comment is similar to telling someone who is coping with grief after the death of a loved one that they “should get over it already” and that “everything is how it’s meant to be.” As much as it might be well meaning, it often, conversely, creates more despair in someone who is grieving. As Megan Devine, founder of Refuge In Grief, wrote in her blog, The Politics of Grief, “we have to pay attention to pain — ours, and others’. We have to get better at listening, at bearing witness to what hurts without fixing it, without putting a high gloss rainbow on top of it. We have to get better at hearing pain, without talking anyone out of it, or dismissing and diminishing it…. The alternative is to listen — to our selves, to each other — and bear witness to what hurts. To reduce suffering where we can.” Let’s create the space to hold our own and each other’s pain, rather than trying to numb it or push it away.

2. Take time to pause, relax, and renew in the midst of the storm.
 In order to be present for others and to become part of the solution, we need to take care of ourselves. When I took the misstep at my front door, I had been thinking about everything that I needed to do that day, the anger in the world, my own fears about the future, and the multiple objects that I was carrying so that I could make just one trip out the front door. What I was not thinking about was where I was stepping.

Distress occurs when we’re living in the past or in the future. Keeping focus on the present moment is what brings peace and ease from stress. Take a few minutes several times throughout your day to bring yourself back to the present moment by focusing on your breathing. Find ways to relax and renew everyday, such as by listening to music you enjoy or spending time laughing at the craziness in our world (if you can’t laugh, you’ll likely cry). In my previous blog, How To Thrive With Stress, I described some other relaxation techniques that you might find helpful. Putting ourselves in a more relaxed state has the benefit of increasing our energy and enthusiasm to take positive steps to improve our communities and the world, not to mention that it increases our ability for calmness and kindness, which is just as contagious as anxiety. So, let’s infect those around us with these magnificent qualities.

As I’ve written in my blog, 10 Tips For Staying Positive In The Midst of Negative News Cycles, taking a break from the news is necessary for health and wellbeing. I’m a big proponent of keeping ourselves informed. However, listening to the same bad news over and over again does nothing to solve the problems of the world. It has the opposite effect of causing us to feel helpless and hopeless, creating more stress within ourselves and making us even less able to become part of the solution. Take a break from the “bad” news and spend some time paying attention to positive events in the world and in your own lives. Having an attitude of gratitude has an enormous effect of decreasing our internal stress and increasing our mood, vitality, creativity, enthusiasm, and compassion.

Finding credible and trustworthy news sources is also a must. It has come to light that much of what we read on social media, where most people tend to get their news these days, is false or exaggerated information, or it’s at least difficult to weed out the factual from the fictional news articles. Relying on questionable information only increases our anxiety and, obviously, does nothing to actually inform us about what’s really happening in the world. A more reliable alternative would be looking for the information from reputable independent newspapers (or the online versions of these newspapers) and other independent news sources that are not beholden to sponsors. Consider purchasing a subscription to a reputable independent news publication, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, AP News, or Newsweek. This was recently recommended to me, and now I know what I’m going to gift myself for the holidays. However, even if you receive the information from what you consider a trustworthy source, keep an open mind and check that information with other dependable sources. Finding out what is as close to the truth as we possible can does take some effort. But it will go a long way toward emotional wellbeing and better decision-making.

3. Focus on the good you can bring into the world with your gifts.
 Even when everything seems broken, we can each spread light into those dark cracks. Give your gifts to the world, whatever those gifts might be, such as, through the healing arts, through creative arts, or through giving a practical helping hand.

Based on his research in the 1960s, psychologist, Dr. Martin Seligman developed the theory of learned helplessness. He found that one’s belief that there is nothing they can do to change their unpleasant situation often leads to depression. Meanwhile, it’s been found that some of the most powerful antidotes to depression include actively finding solutions to the obstacles in our lives, as well as taking action to help others.

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist, Dr. Viktor Frankl, described the psychotherapy treatment he created, called Logotherapy. This was based on what he learned from his experience as a prisoner of two concentration camps during the Holocaust. He discovered that those people who were the most resilient in this intensely horrific situation were those who found meaning by helping their fellow prisoners, giving of themselves, even if all they had to offer was a crumb. “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed…When we are no longer able to change a situation…we are challenged to change ourselves.” As Dr. Frankl taught, if we find a way to give meaning to our own circumstances, by helping others, we can prevent deep despair in ourselves, and we can be part of the solution when faced with even the hardest of challenges.

Lately, when I find myself entering into a dark space of helplessness and hopelessness, I remember to focus my attention on those gifts that I have to bring light into the world. For me, that means writing in ways that can be helpful to those struggling, as well as expressing myself through creative outlets such as drawing. I’m also mindful of listening, guiding, and demonstrating compassion to my clients and all who come to me for assistance with their emotional distress. In addition, I’ve been looking for ways to have a voice in our society — to volunteer and donate to aid people who need more of a helping hand right now.

If you feel that the world is getting meaner, then become the opposite of that, be compassionate. In addition, you can create more hopefulness and bring more light into the world by volunteering; join a group that works to have a say in the political system in order to create a kinder world; help your neighbors with chores and errands; donate to organizations that help those in need or that oppose legislation that you’re uncomfortable with; call or write your representatives to make your opinions known; vote every year, as the local politicians are the ones who will represent our needs on the larger scope; and encourage your friends, family, and neighbors to vote.

One of the clearest messages that was communicated by people on all sides during the election, was that they felt that their voices were not being heard and that their needs weren’t being met. If we want to be heard, we need to be involved in the process. Voting in all elections, including local elections, is the minimum necessary step to take in order to have a stronger voice.

4. Surround yourself with positive, supportive, and loving people.
 I strongly believe that love prevails, even when things appear bleak. This is what keeps me from falling into the dark abyss. What kept my parents going throughout those rough periods before I was born, and throughout my youth, were the strong bonds of friendship that they forged. These life-long friendships brought them incredible strength. I see that happening right now. People around me are drawing closer and supporting each other. We need to surround our selves with positive people, create deeper friendships, and help each other. This brings joy back into our lives, and by just knowing that there are loving people who have our back, we can stay strong and rooted when on shaky, changing, shifting ground.

Remember, even when everything seems cracked, as Leonard Cohen sang, “that’s how the light gets in.”

Check out similar blogs by Dr. Mara, her internet radio show, and her videos on Vimeo.com. Be sure to follow her on Facebook!

Follow Mara Karpel, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MaraEK

Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on November 30, 2016.