How to Move Past the Shock of the Election

4 minute read

Cook is a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University and an Op-Ed Project Public Voices Fellow

Many who cast their votes for Hillary Clinton in the recent U.S. presidential election are still reeling over Donald Trump’s win. Many feel shock, disbelief, anger, sadness and helplessness. Some might even meet criteria for a condition called post-traumatic embitterment disorder (PTED)—a label used to identify those with intense feelings of bitterness triggered by a negative—but non-threatening—life event that seems unjust and a personal affront or humiliation. It’s tempting to call this reaction in the U.S. “post-traumatic election disorder.”

PTED is not listed in the U.S. or international book of psychiatric diagnoses, so, technically speaking, one can’t get diagnosed and treated for such a condition. Nonetheless, it’s a helpful label to address the adjustment that many face after a critical event that violates their basic beliefs.

Posttraumatic embitterment disorder was first described after the re-unification of Germany in 1990. When the Berlin Wall came down, millions of people from East Germany were thrown into psychological and social discombobulation. They had to make sense of what seemed like a surreal new culture. Their changed circumstances left them feeling vulnerable and less than. This second-class situation resulted in people feeling sour at the perceived unfairness that had been done to them.

The PTED phenomena was also seen in the face of extreme political conflict in Northern Ireland. The caustic divide between Protestants, who leaned towards remaining part of the U.K., and Catholics, who wanted to join the Irish Republic eventually ended with a peace wall erected in Belfast to defuse the sectarian tension.

Now, in the U.S., we can see it in the protests and sentiment of many who are feeling a tremendous letdown and fear about what could happen to our country.

If you’re feeling this way, what can you do about it?

Allow yourself to feel painful emotions.

Don’t push them away. It’s OK to cry alone or in a community, yell, hide, and be afraid, temporarily. It’s helpful to unpack these emotions, self-reflect, and then move forward.

Get some time and distance from the presidential election.

Turn off the TV and shut down the Twitter feed for a while.

Turn to like-minded individuals.

We can reassure one another by listening to each other’s feelings, thoughts and fears. We can count the blessings of friendship that we do have and engage in acts of random kindness.

Reframe your perspective.

Try to look at the positives that might come out of this. For example, maybe we’ll increase engagement in advocacy or develop and disseminate curriculum to teach our children guidelines for civility and tutorials on how to respect and honor differences. We could remain open to different non-hateful viewpoints and cultivate effective strategies for dealing with economic, political and social uncertainty about what comes next. Mindfulness skills can help us to stay alert and clearheaded so that we can perceive what is happening and be prepared to be helpful.

Stay committed to making a better world.

Setbacks like this can temporarily knock one off the path, but we must remain passionate and committed to a better world no matter what. It may seem dark and dismal, but there are bright spots in this election. For example, the 115th U.S. Congress will have the highest percentage of women legislators in its history — including a string of firsts: its first Latina senator, Thai American senator, South Asian American senator and Indian American representative.

Find common ground in bi-partisan and non-denominational solutions.

This country and our people are resilient. We will tap into our strengths and stand shoulder to shoulder, renewing our commitment to human welfare, decency and fairness for all. And we will rise together, grasp the hammer and forge the nails for a better tomorrow. We will garner our privilege and our collective strength to protect the most vulnerable among us. We will not tolerate anyone being excluded, dismissed or threatened.

Instead of dwelling on the negative, we all need to proceed with the audacity of hope.

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