It’s a week after the election and our nation remains somewhat divided. President-elect Joe Biden has declared victory but President Trump has not conceded—some speculate he may never concede. All the while, the COVID-19 pandemic nightmare rolls on and far too many continue struggling with anxiety and depression.

For those who are traumatized by the outcome of this election, the hard work of sorting through those distressing feelings is just beginning. As a psychiatrist, I’ve helped many patients work through emotionally difficult—even devastating crises—which I think can help all of us understand how to endure this national tension. In 1969, the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross stages of grief broke down the process of grieving into five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This model may be a useful structure for moving through difficult emotions following the election.

Healing After Upheaval

In my line of work, I have heard many people describe personal tragedy and trauma and have watched them work through these stages of grief, sometimes in acute crises in the hospital, and sometimes gradually over time in one-to-one office visits. The final stage of grief— acceptance—is perhaps the hardest one to reach, but the place where we receive the sense of peace we need during times of upheaval.

How can we reach that stage as quickly and meaningfully as possible, while still acknowledging the weight and reality of our national situation?

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By working to understand what acceptance means as a psychological state and the role it plays in the coping process and the understanding of reality. Acceptance is the end of the grieving process. It’s not meant to replace the earlier stages. But it is meant to achieve a form of healing, not despair. Acceptance is a balanced state (ideally) that can take time to reach. When we reach acceptance, we’re able to live with the knowledge that something painful has happened without it ruining our lives.

To get there, it’s important to understand the earlier stages of the grieving process.

What Denial Sounds Like

Denial is the “shock” stage. This is the place where you’re confronted directly with an unexpected, unanticipated outcome. “That can’t be right,” may be the reaction because until now we’ve viewed the situation through a very personal lens and value system. We may not have considered a different outcome. When something out of the ordinary occurs, we’re thrown off balance. A sudden earthquake. Abrupt bad news. Any event that isn’t routine causes temporary inertia in our minds where up is still up and down is still down.

But then our minds recalibrate: we see that we are wrong and that makes us angry.

Anger is a common reaction to what basically amounts to an insult that says you didn’t get this right. That knowledge delivers an emotional punch. We thought people or events would behave differently but they didn’t. When this expectation involves our value systems or our loved ones, the emotional investment and hurt are even greater.

In the case of the election, if we felt one candidate stood for ideals we found abhorrent, we may feel angry that the majority (that we weren’t part of) seem to support those destructive beliefs.

Why Lack of Agency Makes Us Feel Bad

Eventually, we move past this emotionally-reactive state and start bargaining. It’s our minds’ way of coping with the facts at hand. Is there an action we can take to modify the unexpected? A way to undo or change what has happened?

If the answer is still “nope,” depression may set in because we’ve lost our agency. Sheer will can’t fix what we find overwhelming.

Take the unexpected death of a loved one for instance. Death is final; our loved one is gone. It’s a sad realization—a loss we cannot change or will away through our own power. We have to go through a sense of mourning, that what we knew or thought to be stable in our lives is now lost.

Right now, many of us are gripped with fear about losing the American way of life as we know it. Fear that certain democratic values we hold dear may be altered forever.

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The Key to Being Calm

When we allow the sadness and mourning to pass but still maintain a memory of what was beloved to us, we reach a place of acceptance. Focusing on other aspects of our lives that we can feel future-oriented about can help. With the election behind us, maybe now we can focus on getting that promotion at work or improving our diets.

Moving through each of the five stages of grief helps us process everything in our personal psyche. It’s a way to exercise agency and feel calm again.

Employing mindfulness can also be effective. Stay focused on the present and learn to calmly accept other thoughts and sensations in the mind and body. Darkness, fear, and pain may exist but they should not be permitted to take root or control your thoughts or actions.

With practice, you can learn to let go of the emotional and physical weight of those distressing thoughts and feelings. Acknowledging that sometimes life really is unfair, cruel, unjust and that there isn’t anything we can do to fix or control that is key.

Here are some other healthy ways to cope:

  • Crying can be a cathartic release of emotion.
  • Talking with loved ones, friends, and trusted confidants.
  • Reading (or listening to) books that inspire or entertain
  • Looking at or creating art
  • Indulging in self-care
  • Turning to other hobbies or other soothing activities (walking in nature, playing your favorite music, etc.)

Deep mourning following a great loss, like a loved ones’ passing, is considered normal for up to a year. If you find that you’re not feeling better despite trying all these ways of working through your emotions, it may be time to seek professional help.

Therapy and other treatments can help you sort through unhealthy thought patterns and beliefs that may be interfering with your ability to move on and accept the new reality.

This is not to say that you should stop fighting injustice or working to remedy the traumas or wrongdoing that you see. Acceptance isn’t a passive state. It’s a heightened state of self-awareness and empowerment that allows you to choose more effectively how to face the realities you’re upset about. Acceptance allows us to turn our attention to what we can change, not to what we can’t.

Our nation will have a new leader soon. Whatever the electoral outcome, we should allow ourselves grace and compassion. By working through our grief we will emerge with maturity, resilience, and a new path forward for ourselves and for all Americans’ sake.

Last Updated: Nov 10, 2020