Psychology experts tell Healthline they’ve never seen this level of election-related stress, but they do have some advice on how to cope.
Many people thought the long 2016 presidential campaign would finally be over after Nov. 8.
Technically, the contentious contest did end on that Tuesday evening.
However, for perhaps half the country the anguish and anger over the battle between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton rages on.
Psychology experts interviewed by Healthline say they have never witnessed this amount of election-related stress, both during the campaign and in its aftermath, than they saw in 2016.
“I have never seen this level of anxiety and stress during an election cycle,” said Nancy Molitor, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, and an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and behavior sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
The emotions run the gamut from frustration to dread to sadness.
However, these experts said all is not lost for those who were upset by President-elect Trump’s victory.
They offered guidance ranging from empathy to action to perspective in an effort to help people quell the emotions that may be doing those who are upset more harm than good.
“It’s healing to forgive. It’s healing to be kind to others,” said Ken Yeager, Ph.D., an associate professor in the psychiatry department at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
What people are feeling
Yeager said the first emotion almost all Clinton supporters felt was probably shock.
Since Election Night, those feelings may have morphed into other forms and either intensified or subsided, depending on the person.
Yeager says he has heard people mention fear, anxiety, depression, and anger in the past few days.
Molitor says she has heard from clients who are experiencing a wide range of emotions, including numbness, sadness, nervousness, apprehension, and dread.
Elaine Ducharme, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice, said Clinton supporters are going through the grieving process of disbelief, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
“It’s like a death,” she said. “People are going through these stages.”
Yeager said it is beneficial that the 2016 election is not being contested like the 2000 presidential contest, a legal battle that dragged on for more than a month after Election Day due to the close contest in Florida.
“It gives us a foundation to begin moving forward,” he said.
However, Molitor points out there are other differences between 2016 and 2000 that make this particular election more difficult for people on the losing side.
One is the level of toxicity of the 18-month campaign. That definitely has a lingering effect.
Another is the fact Clinton won the popular vote but came up short in the Electoral College. Molitor said that can create a lot of “what if” scenarios in people’s minds.
“They can have a need to blame something,” she said.
Another difference is the amount of social media and 24/7 news to which people have access. That can fuel already high emotions and prevent people from moving on.
Who is most affected?
Those who were most involved with the Clinton campaign are probably the most likely to be feeling the post-election pain.
However, there are other groups dealing with some emotional trauma.
Ducharme, who has a lot of teenagers as clients, said they have been talking to her about election stress.
She said this is unusual because teens tend to be self-focused and generally don’t talk about things like elections.
One of her teen clients actually told her he was afraid Trump was going to be assassinated.
“A lot of parents weren’t very quiet about their anger,” said Ducharme. “These kids heard some pretty terrible stuff.”
Molitor said she has been counseling a number of millennials. On Election Night, she spoke to one college student for an hour to “talk her down.”
“She was really horrified by the outcome,” Molitor said.
Molitor noted that for many younger millennials the 2016 contest was their first national election. They haven’t personally gone through the political ups and downs before.
“They don’t have the context that some of us do,” she said.
Molitor added she has also noticed election stress on the other end of the age scale.
Older adults in their 70s and 80s have told her they are worried about the direction of the country and are concerned for their children and grandchildren.
One World War II veteran, she said, is “terrified” he will see the rise of fascism in the United States like he witnessed in Europe.
All three psychology experts mentioned people of color as well as the LGBT community, many of whom feel threatened by Trump’s election.
Yeager added he has special concern for sexual assault victims.
He said those women may have strong reactions to the election of Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault by more than a dozen women. The president-elect has denied all of those allegations.
Molitor said she also has spoken to some sexual abuse victims about the election.
One woman became upset when the 2005 Access Hollywood audiotapecame out with Trump boasting about how he approached and touched women.
Those feelings intensified when the Republican nominee was elected.
“She was beside herself,” said Molitor.
Molitor added that people who are on social media a lot are also potential targets. Their anger gets stoked by visiting sites such as Facebook, then reading and responding to posts.
“They know they shouldn’t be doing it, but they can’t help it,” she said. “They are so worked up that it is difficult for them to detach.”
Ducharme talks about the “righteous hostility” some Trump opponents may feel entitled to display, but she advises against that.
“The reality is it destroys you,” she said.
How best to cope
Ironically, the psychology experts said people suffering from post-election stress can look to the politicians themselves for behavior models.
They said the calm, gracious post-election speeches made by Trump, Clinton, and President Obama are a good examples of ways to begin to bridge the divide.
“Those were exactly the right words to say,” commented Yeager.
The experts also advised people to maintain perspective, avoiding fatalistic views about the future of the country.
They noted that the United States government has a complex structure with checks and balances that is slow to institute changes.
“The reality is we’ve had a government that has worked for a couple hundred years,” said Ducharme.
Molitor said the first step for people with heightened emotions is to seek out someone to have a calm conversation with about their feelings, whether it be a professional or a friend.
She said they should keep in mind that initial fear and anger in these situations is normal and they should take things a day at a time.
“Any loss goes through stages and phases,” Molitor said.
She advised people not to obsess over things they have no power over.
“Focus on what you can control and not on what you can’t control,” she said.
Yeager adds that if you are angry, it’s because you have chosen to be mad.
“You have control over how you act,” he said.
Another key component to healing is to take some positive action, the experts said.
Work in the upcoming midterm elections in 2018 or in other political arenas.
Or, volunteer in a soup kitchen or at another charity.
Or, decide you are going to alter your behavior so that you are kinder, politer, or more understanding of others.
“Take an active role to bolster yourself,” said Yeager.
Ducharme mentioned a woman who had volunteered extensively for both the Obama and Clinton campaigns.
Ducharme was worried about how she’d react to the 2016 vote, but the woman calmly told her she was going to work on some upcoming local campaigns and visit her grandchildren more often.
“You can take action so you don’t feel like just a victim,” said Ducharme.
The experts also had advice for Trump supporters on how to help bridge the divide.
They said don’t gloat and be sure to have some empathy. Keep in mind, they advised, how you felt eight years ago when a candidate named Barack Hussein Obama first won the presidency.
“Be gracious, use good sportsmanlike behavior,” said Molitor. “This can be a time of healing.”