Election prompts anxiety, confusion

By Phyllis Hanlon
January 1st, 2017

In the wake of what many print, broadcast and social media outlets have called one of the “most divisive” political campaigns in recent memory, a mixture of emotions ranging from anger to confusion are impacting the country’s psychological health.

Some clinicians are seeing an increase in calls for help, while research psychologists attempt to explain the complicated after-effects of the election.

In the weeks since the election, Jason Evan Mihalko, Psy.D., private practitioner in Cambridge, Mass., whose patients include many immigrants, people of color and trauma survivors, has received more calls than usual. “It could be the time of year and not necessarily the election,” he said. “But the election is the reason people give when they call.”

Mihalko reported that some of his patients heard their lives “represented as at risk and not valued” during the campaign.

“Trauma survivors feel fear, emotional dysregulation and flashbacks, which makes it difficult to think critically and logically. In terms of non-election years, the symptoms are intensified,” he said. “Five years ago, an immigrant would have the same fears, but they would be triggered less often. Now their fear is rooted in a headline or someone yelling something on the street. The election emboldened people tospeak racist thoughts they’ve always had, but kept deep within.”

Some of these elevated emotions derive from an inescapable access to news, Mihalko said. “In 1999 during the Bush election, there was no Google, Facebook or Twitter so it was easy to be disconnected. Now it’s hard to shut all things off and titrate the amount of stimulation you get,” he said, noting that media is consumed on a 24-hour news cycle.

“The confluence of genuine news stories and scary hate speech makes people fearful. Stress hormones respond from a place of fear. It’s hard to be a critical thinker. There’s a lot of confusion,” he said.
Mihalko, who is “committed to social justice and envisions psychology as a tool for social justice,” promotes the idea of “moral imagination,” i.e., helping to see others as a person, not a thing.

“Hate rhetoric makes an object of others, rather than seeing the other as a person. They are no longer seen as human,” he said.

Lately, some executives in top national companies have issued messages of kindness and peace, which begins “interrupting the process of hate,” and “shows a moment of moral imagination.” Mihalko said, “It’s helpful to have great acts of kindness and is instructive for the population. We have to lean into the notion that these are people, rather than reducing their humaneness. So many who’ve worked to be seen and included under the umbrella of humanity during this political campaign have been turned into an object.”

Jordan P. LaBouff, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology and honors at the University of Maine in Orono, cited the importance of “perspective taking” in the aftermath of the campaign and election.

“The goal is to attempt to understand how [others] are thinking, take on their perspective,” he said, explaining that this exercise will lead to better empathy with an alternative point of view. Having conversations – but not on social media – is key, he said.

“Large portions of the country feel voiceless and unrepresented. We know that when groups experience a lack of voice, it’s painful and has social, personal, physical and mental health consequences,” LaBouff said. “It’s more comfortable to gravitate to like-minded people with shared values. But the key to having a more positive attitude is to engage more with others that are not like you.”

However, LaBouff expressed significant concern about intergroup and inter-religious bias and stigma. “We are seeing a relaxing of social prohibitions. We’re seeing prejudice and discrimination. We know explicit racial bias is socially unacceptable,” he said. “When there’s implicit bias what follows is explicit bias. When you allow social public expression of racism, it shifts implicit attitudes radically.”

LaBouff relies on the literature regarding the power of perspective taking and inter-group contact. “It works when you understand the way of someone different from you and work collaboratively on something meaningful,” he said. “It’s hard to create but can have a powerful effect and build trust and respect. If we construct ways at the local level, we can make some progress.”

Students at the University of Maine are putting this theory into practice; they are collaborating on a crafting day in support of the nearby Islamic Center of Maine. LaBouff said, “Those events are really psychologically powerful to those groups. It helps them feel connected and reduces defensiveness that leads to extremism. It’s a way to build bridges.”

Carrie A. Bulger, Ph.D., professor in the department of psychology at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., also recommends promoting respect through local efforts to address post-election problems, which she said are multi-faceted and intertwined with social and political issues.

“I’ve contacted the library to set up a shelf of books on political perspectives and asked to host reading groups. The goal is to start to bring conversation to a larger scale from the local and community levels,” she said. “Civility is figuring out a way to talk and listen. Between the candidates modeling bad behavior and the proliferation of half-truths on social media, we’re running against a big problem.”

Bulger pointed out that research on stress and coping reports that taking and having control is the number one way to reduce stress, no matter the origin of that stress.

“People need to find a way to figure out some measure of control. In my town, people are talking to each other, collecting a list of books to understand the psyche of others that we don’t agree with,” she said. “Calling legislators and talking about the issues can be actions that give a sense of peace. It’s not just bearing witness, but doing something.”

Mihalko uses social justice as a framework and believes in “agency.”

“People feel powerless about the election. They need to find a way to make them feel like they can do something,” he said. “Write a letter to the newspaper. Go to the protests. Teach a class. Do things that are within your control. It might not change the world, but it brings people together. When you know you can take action, you can adapt to a hostile situation.”

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