Managing election distress at the workplace

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. 

|| November 20, 2016