Are You Heading For an Election Meltdown?

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Some Experts Predict Epidemic of Post-Partisan Depression

By Denise Mann
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

Nov 2, 2004 -- Regardless of the outcome of the 2004 presidential election, polls suggest that as many as 49% of Americans may now feel a profound sense of loss or even deep-seated anger.

A high voter turnout was expected this election, and the stakes may never have been higher. You are either for President Bush or you are against him. The same holds true for Sen. John Kerry and the issues of the war in Iraq, guns, abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research.

"There are a lot of folks that have gotten very, very involved and believe that the direction of our country is at stake, and many people that could have very acute reactions to the election results," says political leadership coach Donna Zajonc, a former Oregon state representative and mental health nurse.

"I do believe that there will be a psychological effect that can be long-term if not dealt with," says Zajonc, author of The Politics of Hope: Reviving the Dream of Democracy.

But turning off the television, spending time with friends and family, and eventually getting involved with the issues that matter most on a grass roots level can help stave off any lasting effects, experts tell WebMD.

Intense Election, Intense Reaction

"The intensity and polarization in this election almost feels like the 1960s and the Vietnam era, except that in the 1960s, you never saw bumper stickers saying, 'Anyone but ?,'" agrees Robert R. Butterworth, PhD, a psychologist at International Trauma Associates in Los Angeles. "A significant number of people are going to be pissed and that anger can turn to cynicism and uninvolvement."

"We have gotten people riled up, and the bases have been energized and the opposite of energized is depression," he adds.

The closeness of this year's election may further intensify the situation, he says.

"If you are not backing a candidate that is leading in the polls, you are psychologically prepared [to lose], but the dead heat in this election adds a cliffhanger aspect, which means that when we do fall, we will fall hard," Butterworth says.

Another drawn-out election can also make things worse for millions of Americans who are so vested in the outcome of this election.

"My dad always told me that if I had a tooth that bothered me, I could wiggle it or I could tie a string to the tooth and to a door and slam the door to pull it out, and my feeling is always let's get the pain over with as quickly as we can and not prolong things," Butterworth says.

Sore Winners Breed Really, Really Sore Losers

"If winners say 'ha ha' and rub salt in the wound, that can also cause problems especially where people work," he says. Regardless of who wins, Kerry and Bush must come together, he says. "The problem with the last election is that this didn't happen because Vice President Al Gore was fighting tooth and nail with Bush," he says. "The leaders have to show people how to react."

This time around, "people must shake hands and say 'let's work together,'" he says.

And move on.

"The president is such a figurehead, but a lot of the issues that people care about are also states' issues," Butterworth says. "The issue that you care about shouldn't be put on hold for four more years," he adds.

"Even though the candidate that you are supporting may not be elected, the issues are still alive and you can focus on them on a grass roots level," he says. "When you give up or become cynical and drop out, the process grinds to a halt and your issues never do get addressed."

Zajonc agrees, adding that people should "build their own political habitat and really associate with more positive folks that look at the good that came out of election and build on the good things."

But there's even more you can do, she says.

"When there is a disappointment, the first thing you must do is take time and find something you love to do and have fun," suggests Zajonc.

And "take time and grieve," she says. "It's an essential step for renewal, and grieving really truly means crying and really understanding your sense of loss," she says. "It's like a death and in this case, it's the loss of a dream and that can mirror the loss just as though it were the death of a friend," she says. "You really have to understand this is an emotional big deal. Do not minimize the extent of your emotional feelings."

And, Butterworth adds, "turn off the TV for a while and, for the short term, escape politics and enjoy the holidays. Give yourself a political moratorium for two or three months, but don't forget the issue that you are involved in."

Invested Too Much Emotional Stock?

So how can you tell if you were too vested in this election?

Warning signs that perhaps you've invested too much emotional stock in this election include "feeling fatigued, stressed, despair with the news reports," points out Bedford, New Hampshire-based psychologist Pamela M. Brill, EdD. "For some, the physical signs of being too engaged include racing heart rate," she says. "When you get there, you can take that as a sign that it's time for a break, a literal breather."

So, "breathe [and] look for the roses -- the things over which you have control, then exert energy to turn those around," Brill says.

"Sour grapes, blaming the other party or candidate or their troops or the media -- waste of energy," Brill says. Find another pastime or passion, she suggests. "Go see those movies you missed while you were campaigning," she says. "Or rent a DVD and kick back with family and friends [because] letting go is much easier when we have other things to grab on to."

Published Nov. 2, 2004.

SOURCES: Bainbridge Island, Washington-based political leadership coach Donna Zajonc, a former Oregon state representative and mental health nurse. Robert R. Butterworth, Ph.D, of International Trauma Associates in Los Angeles, Calif. Psychologist Pamela M. Brill, EdD.

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