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3Qs: Advice for handling strong emotions post-election

October 16, 2014 - Distinguished Professor of Psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett is director of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory. Dr. Barrett's research focuses on the nature of emotion from both psychological and neuroscience perspectives and takes inspiration from anthropology, philosophy, and linguistics.

Photo by Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University

The 2016 presidential election was a roller coaster for many people, promoting strong feelings from anxiety to depression, anger to exuberance. The surprising results brought the emotions to a peak for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters. Lisa Feldman Barrett, University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern, focuses on the nature of emotion from both psychological and neuroscientific perspectives. We asked her what people can do to deal with their strong reactions, how the negative tenor of the campaign might affect them psychologically over the long term, and how to regain equilibrium as individuals and as a nation.

Why was the response to this election so strong, and what can people do to deal with the range of intense emotions resulting from it?

We live in a divided country. Our country, like all countries, exists as social reality, which rests on collective agreement. The U.S. exists with its laws, practices, and values because its citizens consent to live by them. We may disagree in our beliefs (for example, we might not agree on abortion rights), but we agree that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. Given the gaping political chasm that divides our country, the two sides can no longer hear one another clearly. One side of the electorate will always feel that their idea of America has been violated. People’s emotions have reflected that. Those who support Trump are jubilant. Those who support Clinton are angry and feeling hopeless. There’s a Turkish expression, hayal kırıklığı, that translates as “broken dreams”; it captures the sense of frustration due to loss that so many are experiencing. And these conflicting emotions continue to keep us from understanding one another.

Strong emotions like these shrink the horizon of our experience to right now. They make it difficult to remember that this is just a single moment in time, and life goes on.  But it is not a good idea to become trapped in the present. Try to see this election as one event in the timeline of your life. Get some perspective. To break the ever-present looming doom, take a moment now and then to appreciate small pleasures.  If you look around you right now, you can find something, however small, to be grateful for.

Meanwhile, sleep enough, exercise, and eat well. Hug your loved ones. Find something to savor and take a walk on a beautiful fall day. Be thankful that we live in a democracy and that we have elections to be emotional over.

Numerous commentators have noted the contentiousness of this campaign. What effect do you think the negativity has had on people’s psychological well-being? Do you expect the effects to diminish now that the election is over?

The human body evolved to deal with periodic large stressful events, so periodic big stress spikes have little effect on health. But the constant drizzle of uncertainty and causal brutality we live with every day is very bad for the nervous system. This sort of stress gets under the skin, interferes with your immune system, and can make you sick. In the extreme, it remodels your brain, killing neurons, making you depressed and reducing your ability to remember and learn. The result: more depression, more obesity, more heart disease, more opiate addiction, and so on. Given how divided the country is, and how the election solidified a tone of social discourse that is harsh and Kafka-like, I don’t expect the effects will diminish anytime soon.

How might we, as individual citizens, work to rebuild trust among ourselves?

Open your mind. Listen and learn, don’t presume and preach. Anger can be a form of ignorance.

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