Managing election distress at the workplace

By ruth | November 20, 2016

Contributed by Jo Ellen Brainin-Rodriguez, MD, Psychiatrist and Certified Trainer with Equilibrium Dynamics

The day after Trump and the Republican Party won the 2016 election, I went to work. I'm fortunate to work in a mental health clinic that specializes in treating the sequelae of trauma, including sexual assault, domestic, political and social violence and traumatic brain injury.

The patients include large numbers of immigrants from all over the world, many from Latin American countries and the Muslim world. Our staff is also diverse, with Latina(o)s, African Americans, Asians, Muslims, Jews and other European Americans well represented. As we gathered for a debriefing meeting at noon that day it was clear emotions were running high, with anger, disappointment, dejection and sadness well represented.

What followed illustrates why the Equilibrium Dynamics 10-step for feeling management tool can be so effective; though we did not use them formally, the discussion over that hour followed quite closely: 

Time out - we made the time to sit together with the goal of listening and sharing, to reflect on the impact of the results on both us as a staff and individuals, but also for our patients. 

Analyze what happened - we took turns describing the sequence of events from our individual points of view: from shock at the results, to interactions with family and friends whom we did not know had voted differently to us, to the impact on children in our families, to the impact on and fears for, the undocumented in our families, to the reactions of patients we'd seen that day. 

Name all the feelings – the most prominent feelings were sadness, anger, numbness, disappointment, fearful, determined and collaborative.

Sort the feelings (into relevant, anachronistic, or irrelevant) - Many of the staff were able to identify previous experiences with bullying or racism that were influencing their current emotions. Others felt a sense of protective numbness, identifying the most relevant emotions as those affecting their relationships with patients or loved ones. Leadership gave tacit approval to our process, which encouraged honesty and mutual support, helping the process along.

Face all the feelings - It was painful to see the tears and pained expression of coworkers who felt particularly vulnerable to racism, homophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, as well as the anger and sense of betrayal by our government. We sat with it all, everyone in different ways expressing support and solidarity for the emotions of the other.

Choose the best result for now or later – Initially our best result had to do with facing our patients with compassion and understanding while taking care of ourselves and not getting overwhelmed with despair and anger. Collectively we felt our long-term goal was to continue in a principled and steadfast commitment to social justice, for our community of patients and in a more general way US society at large, without engaging in destructive activities or self-harm.

Plan how to make the "best result" happen - At that point people chose different ways forward including taking a break from media, participating in peaceful protests and community education about upcoming struggles, getting more exercise, reading inspirational writings by social justice warriors and educating ourselves in how to support patients and our families, particularly young people, in talking about their feelings - knowing they are safe with us and that we are committed to social justice.

We agreed to check in with each other frequently, to make sure we were taking care of ourselves and had a plan to deal with contentious relatives during the holidays, and to evaluate and course correct as needed.

At the end of that hour, I felt supported, and knew that whatever comes, we will be able to figure out together how to face it, in a principled and active way. We have a lot to do to defend justice and those most vulnerable among us, but I was part of a powerful process that would not be stopped. 

After the election: managing grief and loss

By ruth | November 11, 2016

Contributed by Ruth Thomas-Squance, MPH, PhD, Executive Director, Equilibrium Dynamics and Certified Trainer

The past few days - even months - around the 2016 elections have been incredibly hard on many people for all kinds of reasons. Managing intense feelings around Tuesday’s results, whether you won or lost, can be very challenging since those results mean change.

The experience of change can be one of the highest causes of stress and needs skillful emotional management primarily because it is inevitably accompanied by both losses and gains.

Loss is easily recognized when someone dies, but losses can come in all shapes and sizes, from losing your wallet to losing your job, a divorce or losing an election. Each of these has the potential to affect us emotionally, though permanent changes are often the most painful.

Feelings of grief are how we respond to any of these losses.  It is very common for people to try to dodge the pain of grief using phrases like “forget about it”, “no big deal” or “I’m over it”, because they don’t really know how to handle these emotions.

But grieving really plays an essential role in the process of responding to change and the capacity to let go or move on.

At Equilibrium Dynamics, our curriculum includes the 5 phases of grief outlined by psychiatry. Reading these can help you recognize the feelings you experience as grief.

Phase 1:  Numbness and Shock

Phase 2:  Yearning, for example for the missing person, which can include guilt and bargaining “if only I had done this…”

Phase 3:  Protest, in the form of feelings of irritation and anger.

Phase 4:  Despair feeling grief, sad, hopeless or desperate.

Phase 5:  Detachment and moving on, the point of being ready to let go, hopeful and reintegrating your life without the lost person, or to find a new job.

The feelings that arrive with these phases move through us, like waves that come in on a beach and eventually recede.  Even if you have to restrain your grief to get through the business of your day, remember it is crucial not to permanently stifle grief. Consider it emotional exercise, a service you can do for yourself.

Processing grief is important to your emotional healing and is critical to support your long-term physical health.  Stockpiling unfinished grief and unprocessed feelings sooner or later often leads to those feelings bursting into emotional flames, which will not be under your control. Grieve now, to prevent that possibility later.

Take the time for self-care, to check in and allow yourself to feel your grief. Do it privately if crying appears too vulnerable, uncomfortable or unmanly to you.  This will leave you stronger, acknowledging and adapting to the loss, more able to face the future with resilience. That’s emotional competence.

In terms of the election, whichever way you voted, remember we get to do this all over again in 4 years, so practicing these skills is always useful.