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Health Team

How to overcome the trauma of a divided nation

Posted November 11, 2020 4:29 a.m. EST

— We're facing an onslaught of acute stressors, living through a global pandemic, deep divisions within society, the devastating impact of wildfires and floods, and the ripening of election-related angst.

Americans across society are feeling a depth of trauma that is familiar for many of our nation's veterans and first responders. If you've been eagerly anticipating sudden and sustained relief from your strongest negative emotions should the election have gone your way — that's a mirage.

Regardless of how events unfold in the months to come, the fact remains that a majority of people in our society hold deep fear about the future. Nearly half of the country will continue to feel this way after the election, even if there is a smooth transition of power. Some may express this fear through anger — the go-to emotion for many people — and others will become depressed.

Our fears will not suddenly go away by virtue of the election results. Even if we have leadership that seeks to unify, rather than divide the country, we have a long uphill road to travel. And that's if we choose to travel it.

Here's where we start. As any runner knows, you must train for the event you'll run. If your race is a marathon, you should train for a marathon, not a 100-yard dash. Coping in the years after the 2020 election will be a marathon, not a sprint.

Our challenge is not about coping with acute stress. It's about confronting enduring pain and deep division across American society. Moving toward healing will require us to manage our own fears and make proactive efforts to understand the experience of people who do not see the world as we do. Plan for a marathon. Here's how.

1. Make connections

Our quality of life is heavily determined by the quality of our closest connections. This is especially true during times of overwhelming challenge. Our "tribe" includes the people with whom we can take our emotional armor off and openly share what we think and feel. Our tribe will listen to our helpless rage and our fears for the future — for ourselves, our elderly loved ones and our children. Our tribe hears this without judgment and without losing respect for us.

In training for the marathon ahead, take some time to assemble your support team. Who is in your tribe?

If it helps, other words for this might be your core unit, inner circle, a personal pit crew or what US Marines call a "fireteam" — the people who have your back during times of challenge.

Here's how to identify your tribe. Think of something you did once that really burned you with shame. If you had to tell three other people in your life about this, who would you tell? Chances are that these are the people in your tribe — the people who are emotionally safe, who don't require you to be anything but who you are, in order to hold their love and respect.

Bring these people to mind in your conscious awareness. Make a list of them. It's OK if you only have one or two people on your list. Formalize their support role by telling them that you have their back, and that you're grateful they have yours.

I mentioned in an earlier CNN article a practice of calling the people you are closest with in a rotating way, by putting reminders in your phone to reach out. The anxiety many of us feel about the election will convert into global demoralization for a large portion of the population whose chosen leader is not elected. Coping with demoralization is a tricky thing — it's a battle that requires us to plan and use all available tools to avoid getting mentally isolated. This practice of reaching out proactively to those in your tribe will help.

2. Be kind to others

If you were to speak to people in the opposite party, you would quickly discover a deep belief that people in your chosen party have not been kind to them. The anger that fuels a desire for change comes from a feeling that our society has not supported opportunities for that person. Empathy may be rare these days, but we will need to find it in the days that come, no matter how the election plays out.

To set yourself in a posture of kindness, take some time in the next week or two to reflect on anyone in your life who has been kind to you — especially those who have seen your pain, valued you and invested in you with no expectation of any return. Maybe this was a grandparent, a favorite aunt, a teacher, a high school sports coach or a total stranger that gave you a surprising gift of kindness with nothing to gain for themselves. These people form your personal, historic circle of support.

Draw on memories of them to think about how you can do the same for those around you, even if they're angry. I have personally worked on integrating this practice as a psychologist to our nation's warfighters. Trauma often shows up as rage. Being able to see beyond the anger that people express — seeing the story behind the story — perceiving their hurt, fear and pain, will help you hold your center in the marathon that is to come.

3. Find meaning

Without meaning and purpose, our lives are like a ship without an anchor. Without anchoring ourselves to meaning, regardless of our political party affiliation, we easily can be manipulated by others' agendas. In the book "Man's Search for Meaning," Viktor Frankl shows us how meaning is a stronghold against giving ourselves over to terror and despair.

We are wired to respond to threat with action, which can make us vulnerable to exploitation by others if we are not firmly grounded in our own purpose. In an earlier CNN article, I suggested that taking action is how we can combat a sense of learned helplessness. We can take out a sheet of paper, draw a line down the middle, and write down what we can't control on one side, and what we can control on the other side. I suggested taking action on those things we can control, anchoring our actions to our deeper meaning and purpose.

People who are guided by meaning and purpose change the world over time. They do not burn the world down just to see it burn. Destruction does not create meaning — but rather, this is the act of someone who feels truly helpless — who wants to make others hurt like they are hurting.

Meaning and purpose give us enduring hope, even when we lose battles along the way to meaning.

Take some time today, tomorrow and in the weeks to come to think about where your meaning and purpose can lead you. Whose pain moves you to take positive action? If you care deeply about an issue, how can you support those who are impacted by that challenge? Anchoring yourself to your deeper meaning will help you hold your center in a time of chaos, whether it be the election, the pandemic or the fallout of a natural disaster.

On CNN's list of 50 things you can do to cope with election-related stress, there are ideas for how to relax your body through specific stretching routines or "forest bathing," ways to engage your mind, inspiring quotes, links to relaxing music and practical exercises to help you connect with others. Sometimes, coping is a "one day at a time" thing, and there are lots of creative suggestions in this list of 50 ideas.

My focus is on the horizon, and my goal is to help set the conditions for long-term well-being during this unprecedented time of challenge. There is hope that we can build a positive future, but it starts with acknowledging the depth and nature of the pain within our society. The work before us is a marathon, not a sprint.

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