Post-election stress is a big problem (and not just for liberals)

By James Sullivan

This piece originally appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine

ON THE DAY AFTER THE 2016 presidential election, the administration at a Central Massachusetts boarding school suggested a set of talking points for teachers. The school’s population has a large contingent of international students, and many of them were anxious. One teacher, however, had another idea: My brother-in-law, an Iraq War veteran who teaches introductory Spanish, asked his class whether they would prefer to lie on the floor and watch a Disney movie in Spanish. So they did.

There’s been a lot of that kind of stunned withdrawal since Election Day. In her first speech since she conceded to her Republican opponent, Hillary Clinton herself admitted that there have been days when she’s felt like doing nothing more than curling up with a good book or her dogs. Some supporters of President-elect Donald Trump, too, have muted their celebration while expressing uncertainty about the future of the country.

“We’ve been glued to the news as a nation,” says Jan Bruce, cofounder and CEO of Boston-based meQuilibrium, a digital coaching platform for organizations seeking to manage stress among their employees and clients. “The only thing that’s certain right now is that change is in the air. And change itself is stressful.”

In the wake of a historically volatile election campaign, there is ample evidence that the mental health of Americans of all political persuasions has been seriously challenged. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and other hot line services have reported huge surges in calls for help. Surveys have shown disproportionate numbers of people reporting emotional distress over the election, with one poll indicating that 90 percent of those saying they’ve been stressed believe this election was more demoralizing than any other they’d experienced.

And it’s not just the losers — the “snowflakes,” as distraught Clinton supporters have been derided — who have been feeling out of sorts. “What we’re finding is that stress is not just limited to people that are liberal,” says Maimuna Majumder, a computational epidemiology research fellow for HealthMap at Boston Children’s Hospital. “It is all-encompassing. We now are in a situation where you might keep views to yourself — you don’t know if it’s safe to talk to your friends and neighbors about it. Humans are social creatures, and when you start limiting what you can and cannot say, it can cause a lot of damage.”

Majumder, an MIT doctoral candidate, is the author of a recent Wired article for which she scoured nationwide Google search traffic and found correlations between election-related terms and those related to anxiety and depression. In other words, she wrote, this election “has likely had adverse effects on the mental health and well-being of American citizens.”

Such findings should be taken seriously, Majumder argues. “There has been a lot of negative rhetoric about how people need to suck it up and move on,” she notes. “You can say that as much as you want, but it’s not necessarily the human thing to do.”

Dr. Philip Levendusky, director of the psychology department at Belmont’s McLean Hospital, likens the incessant negativity of the campaign and the surprise outcome of the election to a tornado. “It was a perfect storm of creating anxiety and mood dysphoria,” he says.

Shortly after the election, hospital president Scott L. Rauch sent a letter to staff acknowledging the strains of caregiving while some of the caregivers themselves are feeling upset. McLean is a worldwide leader in neuroscientific research. “By definition, we have a vulnerable, sensitive population,” Levendusky says. “We are in the business of helping people who are vulnerable. [Rauch’s] letter was reminding us of the mission of what we, professionally as an institution, are here to do.”

Organizational leaders of all kinds have felt compelled to deliver similar messages of commiseration and hope for the future. “Our customers are businesses from Main Street to Wall Street,” says meQuilibrium’s Bruce. “The ability to stay agile and adaptive is a prerequisite to maintaining their competitive advantage. In this climate, all bets are off — what’s going to happen with financial regulations or health care regulations. People need to stay strong and open-minded, and resilience is on everyone’s lips for that reason.” She advises her clients to apply the lessons of one of her company’s core training tools. She calls it the “three P’s”: Stressful setbacks are not personal, they’re not permanent, and they’re not pervasive. Resilient people learn to take back their own control, she says. “Otherwise, you’re a victim.”

Stress management experts have been reiterating the need — always important, but especially in times of heightened anxiety — for self-care. Take a walk, listen to music, or do some deep-breathing exercises. Eat well and get enough rest. But the experts also encourage people to look outward to their communities, friends, and family. This is a renewed opportunity for people to volunteer their time, money, or expertise to charitable causes, advocacy groups, and local politics.

And if all else fails, there’s another thing people can do: Get out on a rooftop and scream. Derrick Duplessy is a Boston-based career coach who founded Scream Club, a group for young entrepreneurs to discuss business-related problems and stress — then let out a cathartic howl at the moon. Even before the election results came in, the next Scream Club in Boston was penciled in for Martin Luther King Day, four days before the inauguration. Although the group isn’t political, Duplessy wouldn’t be surprised if attendees want to discuss the election.

For himself and his friends, Duplessy tries to bring some perspective to the political angst in the United States. His family is from Haiti — which has endured hurricanes, earthquakes, and violent military coups — and he thinks back to the fiercely contested 2000 US presidential election, which seemed to threaten the legitimacy of the democracy. Knowing all that “helps me see this as an opportunity for all these organizations that say they serve people,” Duplessy says. His advice is simple: “Take all this energy and do something productive with it.”

Levendusky has also been counseling his patients to maintain a frame of reference. “Nature has a way of taking its course,” he says. “We have a very sound government — 200 years in business. We’ve had major disasters within our history. Things have a way, not by accident, to be able to resolve and keep people safe.”

Three days after the election, Massachusetts congressman Seth Moulton held his second annual Veterans Day Town Hall in his hometown of Marblehead. The forum is designed to bring together military veterans and civilians, who often are unsure how to talk to — or listen to — those who have served the country. Moulton thinks we could learn something about healing the political divide from his event, which he calls the most meaningful thing he has done in his political career. “Certainly a lot of people see this as a healing moment for the community,” Moulton says. “We need to have more conversations like this.”

Majumder, the researcher, noted that many media reports have focused on personal relationships that have been fractured. Less widely reported, she says, has been the “flip side” — friends and loved ones who have reached out to reconnect after years apart. Her family is Muslim, and she grew up in Ohio. “I’ve been hearing from folks I haven’t talked to in years, saying, ‘I’m so sorry we drifted apart,’ ” she says. “People have the feeling that we need to stick together. That’s a really positive thing.”