a depressed woman
Feeling down since the election? You’re not alone.

Q&A: A therapist deluged with post-election stress clients

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Name: Rivka Geoghegan
Age: 46
City: Berkeley
Position: Marriage and family therapist

J.: Much has been written about post-election stress since Donald Trump won the presidency. Many people say their initial shock has given way to anger, anxiety and depression. Is post-election stress still a thing?

Rivka Geoghegan: The phones are ringing off the hook! People are struggling. Not everyone, but a large number. I think of it as a syndrome, which is a group of symptoms that consistently occur together or a condition characterized by a set of associated symptoms.

headshot of geoghegan
Rivka Geoghegan

What are the symptoms and how do they manifest?

Difficulty managing daily tasks, fear, anxiety, an increase in irritability, insomnia, depression, a sense of hopelessness and despair, vulnerability, paranoia, more marital conflicts and lots of “future catastrophizing,” or worrying about what’s to come.

Right after the election, people in my office were in a lot of shock, breaking down and shedding many tears. My clients were not able to focus on working on their personal lives. In the last month or so, that has slowly shifted.

How so?

The heightened emotions have calmed down a little. Now people are more in a management phase, trying to work with their agitation and anxiety.

What other reactions have you seen?

When we experience a loss, some people feel a renewed sense of wanting to live a better life because the loss puts the beauty of life in relief. I’m seeing some of that. Suddenly people want to deal with issues, face what they haven’t been able to face.

Can you give an example?

Sure. Someone in an unhealthy relationship for eight or 10 years may decide life is too short and they can’t live this way any longer. That’s the thing about grief. Sometimes it puts us in touch with what’s most important, serves as a wake-up call.

For some, the election pushed them over the edge and now they are less willing to let things slide.

What about emotional eating? Earlier this year, Barbra Streisand complained on Twitter that in her post-election despair, she turned to pancakes with plenty of butter and maple syrup. Then on March 6, she tweeted, “Trump just accused Obama of tapping his phones. Seriously crazy times. Time for more pancakes.”

Emotional eating is part of it. People have certain trigger points tied to things that have happened in their lives. For many, the election is one big new trigger that pushes buttons relating to issues they’ve already worked on, but it’s re-evoking old emotional patterns and fears.

What sorts of feelings come up?

Feelings we experienced as kids — an overall feeling of not feeing safe, that the ground I am walking on is not steady. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, to be swept away in fear and negativity. Sometimes, the reaction is, “What I need to do is eat or check out.”

What can we do instead to develop good coping strategies?

People need to be aware of how the stress is affecting them. They need to look inward, to see if the fear reminds them of something that happened when they were younger, and to find a safe space to talk about it.

Are there resources in Judaism to help cope?

It can help to find a way to draw on whatever connects you to something larger — whatever you want to call it — something spiritual, such as prayer, meditation, being in nature or being with loved ones. There is nothing that’s manifest that’s not part of a larger, creative, dynamic, inherently intelligent source, even if we can’t see it or it doesn’t make sense to the logical mind. That’s part of my grounding.

After people are aware of how the stress is affecting them, what next?

People need to find a grounded place and make choices about how to stay in that place. Maybe they need to spend part of the day dealing with the latest stressful news and then shut off the phone and computer, be with their kids or take a walk. Go to a movie or appreciate having tea with a friend.

What if you feel guilty about enjoying yourself when you are concerned for the country?

It’s important to work through that. Besides, if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t help support others. If new issues have emerged as a result of post-election stress, things you didn’t know were triggers, it may be important to get professional support to help you through it.

Anything else you can recommend?

Being active — taking part in an action or making a donation — can lessen feelings of helplessness. Also, there is energy work, massage, breathing exercises, dance or movement. And we need to remember there is goodness in life, with wonderful things happening at the same time as difficult things.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected].

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.