Harnassing and Mastering Fear Post-Election

Regardless of your religion, the color of your skin, your ethnic origin, your political affiliation or the way you cast your ballot in the recent Presidential election, you would have to have a blindfold wrapped around your eyes and earplugs in your ears to not notice that many Americans are afraid.

In the days since the election of Donald Trump, a wash of anxiety and fear has flowed through my office, one client at a time.  To be sure, some of my clients are indeed excited and hopeful about the prospect of the Trump presidency. They are the ones who felt that they were on the outside looking in during the last 8 years of Barack Obama’s presidency.

But there is no question that the overwhelming number of people I have encountered are experiencing a level of angst and disquiet that they say they have not experienced since 9/11, in some cases, and, for others, in their lives.

Indeed, a Gallup poll released on November 11 showed that 42 percent of Americans were afraid as a result of the election of President-elect Trump, compared to 36 percent in 2012 and 27 percent in 2008 following President Obama’s two successful bids.  Perhaps the reaction among those I work with is even more intense because it is located in Fairfax County, Virginia, where more than 65 percent of the voters selected Hillary Clinton to be their next president. 

Indeed, the same Gallop poll showed that 76 percent of Clinton voters were afraid.

Some of those I have encountered in the mental health community have spoken with since the election have been shocked by the level of fear they are seeing in clients who did not present the week before the election with anxiety. Others I have spoken with are genuinely baffled by the protests that have erupted across the nation. 

Whether you are hopeful or excited or fearful or sad, recognizing and respecting the emotional reaction of others is an important part of being a compassionate person.

Liel Leibovitz wrote what I believe will be a sadly prescient article entitled “What to do about Trump” that compared the present times to how his grandfather escaped the Holocaust. If you believe, as he wrote,  that “every poisoned word is a promise” and that the voters whose choose to vote for Trump despite his degradation of swaths of the population, there is ample reason, in my estimation, to be afraid. That notion is hardly comforting, but I believe it is a reality of the situation we are in today.

I agree with Leibovitz when he wrote that people have to “refuse to accept this as the new normal.” I also believe that people need to do what they can to cope with the new world, even if they cannot accept it as normal.

To deal with anything that is frightening, we have to focus on what we can control. That might be volunteering to support a cause. That might be protesting. That might be getting lost in what we are baking for dinner tonight. That might mean taking a break – from the news, from your worries, from conversations about politics, from Twitter and from Facebook. What most can control in life are their choices, intentions and behaviors.  We need to do our best to find peace in those.

There is no more effective antidote to anxiety than feeling empowered. When you are ready, engage in the causes you care about and the areas where you are worried. It is empowering to know that you are not alone and that others are fighting for the things that you believe and in places where you feel comfort.

Do not dismiss your fears entirely but keep them in perspective. Having perspective is the only way you can determine what you should truly be concerned about and how to be effective in moving forward in life.

Gavin de Becker, who evaluates threats to our government’s highest officials, wrote in his book “The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence,” fear, even if exaggerated beyond the proportions of reality, “always has your best interest at heart.”

Your fear is telling you something. You should listen to it. But you should not let it paralyze you.

As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Normal fear protects us; abnormal fears paralyzes us,” adding  that “normal fear motives us to improve our individual and collective welfare; abnormal fear constantly poisons and distorts our inner lives.”

“Our problem is not to be rid of fear,” King concluded,  “but rather to harness and master it.”

I could not agree more.

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