This is the first of a series that Dr. Charles Silberstein will be writing about mental health issues. Dr. Silberstein is a psychiatrist who is on the medical staff at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.
Most people I encounter these days comment on how the election has affected them emotionally. Whether Clinton or Trump supporters, this feels big. Many people that I know are feeling filled with sorrow, fear, and panic. Fans of winning sports teams experience different moods affecting hormonal changes than do fans of losing teams. My sense is that a lot of people who had expected Hillary Clinton to be our next president are grieving a loss — a loss of hope, safety, and the thrill of having our first female president. Many of the symptoms of depression are similar to those of grief, including deep sadness, despair, decreased pleasure in life, sleep disturbance, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, gnawing anxious thoughts, and guilty feelings. Several people I know have been experiencing recurrent nightmares, and tearfulness. Grief puts you at risk for depression, and if you have had a previous episode of severe depression, you are at increased risk of experiencing another. If the grief-related feelings persist for more than a couple of weeks, you may be developing a more severe depression and should consider seeking professional help. I’ll write another time about coping strategies for depression, but for now, let’s deal with Thanksgiving.
How do you deal with spending Thanksgiving with family and friends who voted differently than you did? I would suggest that the first thing you should do is take your emotional temperature. Consider whether you are ready to be around people who feel completely differently than you do about the election’s results. Can you handle it if Cousin Alice whines about everything that’s wrong with the person you voted for? Or if Uncle Max makes snide remarks?
If you do decide to share the holiday with people from “the other side,” try asking questions coming from a stance of genuine curiosity and empathy for what led them to their position. Listen. See it as an opportunity to learn, grow, and deepen your understanding and compassion. Isn’t one of our problems in America that we are increasingly isolated from people who see the world differently? You might want to watch Brené Brown’s TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.” (ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability). When we talk to others from the position of exposing our vulnerability and hurt, they are more likely to hear us, feel sympathetic, and respond with compassion. As soon as you start talking in defensive, angry, dismissive tones, expect the other person to do the same.
Try to populate the Thanksgiving table with people of different generations. Older people have seen more of life and may have an enlightening perspective, while younger people may be particularly frightened by the election. For many young people, relatively new to voting and politics, this is the biggest political disappointment of their lives. Listen to them. And get them to listen to the perspective of older people who have lived through other disappointments. Find ways to be reassuring. It will help all of you.
Remember that there is a unifying power in the things that we can agree on. Look for issues around which everyone’s views may be more similar than different. For instance, both parties believe that rebuilding our infrastructure is crucial.
Also keep in mind that Thanksgiving and family gatherings, in general, remind us of the successes as well as hurts of our childhoods. For better and worse, the little kids in us come out at family times. And under stress, we regress. So here are some suggestions for every Thanksgiving holiday with family :
- Remind yourself of who you are today. You have probably had some pretty big successes in life. While you may have a hurt little kid inside of you, you have other parts that are strong, confident, generous, curious and wise.
- Connect first. Talk later. Watch some football, help out in the kitchen, look over family albums before deciding to sit down and discuss politics.
- Decide in advance whether you are ready for political or other potentially fractious discussions.
- Find activities that will bring you together, such as singing, playing cards or board games, or taking a walk. One family I know makes a ritual of jumping into the Vineyard Sound every Thanksgiving. If there are hot emotions flowing, that cools them off pretty quickly.
- And perhaps most important, focus on what we all have to be thankful for.