High-stakes elections, such as the presidential election that just took place in the United States, can take a toll on the mental health of voters. We spoke to an expert to get tips on how to cope in the aftermath.

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A recent study that we covered on Medical News Today found that, following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, people who had backed the losing candidate experienced more days of poor mental health over the next month than in the month before the election.

Based on those findings, the researchers cautioned that this year’s presidential election might also take a toll on voters’ mental health, particularly given that it took place during a pandemic — another factor that has been affecting people’s well-being.

“Healthcare providers could potentially help patients in the 2020 election by monitoring for clinically relevant signs of mental health deterioration and offering appropriate support and intervention,” the study authors advised ahead of the election.

But what can individuals do to mitigate the possible mental health impact of the election’s aftermath?

MNT asked Dr. Matthew Boland, Ph.D. — a licensed clinical psychologist based in Reno, NV — to share some coping strategies and constructive ways forward.

“In instances when ‘our team’ does not win an election, we can often fixate on those difficult results and the sadness, anger, and/or frustration we feel in response to them,” Dr. Boland told MNT.

“However, there are a few ways to help ourselves shift our focus away from the results,” he added.

“First, limit exposure to the election information, or take it only in small doses (e.g., 5 minutes per day). Second, engage in enjoyable activities that give you meaning or capture your attention to focus attention away from constant thoughts about it. Third, speak openly about the stress you feel about the election results with others who are trusted sources of support, but limit how much you talk about the actual results themselves or why you dislike the candidates who won or their political positions.”

– Dr. Matthew Boland, Ph.D.

There is scientific evidence to suggest that such strategies do work. Past research has shown that exposure to negative news cycles can worsen a person’s mood and exacerbate personal worries. Therefore, cutting down on media consumption could help prevent or mitigate that impact.

A longitudinal study from 2014 showed that there was a link between engaging in activities that a person deems meaningful and reporting a better quality of life.

Past research has also shown that the more we try to hide and ignore signs of stress, anxiety, or depression, the worse our mental health gets.

To break the vicious cycle, it is important to acknowledge negative feelings and moods, allowing ourselves to sit with them for a while rather than pushing them away.

Some people are prone to catastrophizing when something does not go as they had hoped or expected. Catastrophizing is a mental process in which individuals anticipate the worst outcome, even though this scenario is unlikely.

“In addition to fixating on negative thoughts in general when we are unhappy about election results, we can also concentrate on thoughts of how those results might lead to the fatality of our country and our system,” Dr. Boland told us.

However, there are ways to bring catastrophic thinking and other negative thoughts under control.

“Some strategies that help you approach your thinking differently include trying to seek perspective and questioning your thoughts that may be pessimistic or suggest fatality of the system,” he explained.

When our thoughts are spinning out of control and exacerbating stress and anxiety, it is important to question them instead of allowing them to carry us away.

“So really checking in with your thoughts and asking, ‘Will what I think actually happen here?’ and, ‘Have my thoughts come true in previous times when I did not like the election results?’ Really questioning or ‘thinking about our thinking’ can help us work toward a balanced perspective and feel less negative emotion and stress,” Dr. Boland went on to advise.

Finally, while election results do have an important impact on key issues of healthcare and social well-being, individuals can still contribute to the causes that matter to them.

“Many issues in an election cycle can lead us to feel a lack of control, especially if we believe those issues will be negatively affected by those who win elections,” Dr. Boland told MNT.

But instead of allowing disappointment and hopelessness to take root, he said, we should look into how, going forward, we may ourselves make a positive contribution to health policies and social welfare.

“If you have strong beliefs about certain issues or policies, one way to gain back a sense of control in the process is to engage in efforts to help those issues be seen in the process. This may mean volunteering for an organization that helps promote a certain issue, or agreeing to assist a political candidate or group in their efforts for the next election, for example.”

– Dr. Matthew Boland

“In the example of healthcare, this may mean volunteering for a political organization that promotes your view on healthcare or a society that promotes the treatment or diagnosis of a certain disease, and writing your representatives (whichever party they belong to) to promote your stance on healthcare issues,” he added.

Indeed, there is some evidence showing that acts of altruism, such as volunteering for a good cause, can make people happier.

According to research from 2017, people who had either performed or expressed an intention to perform an altruistic act had increased activity in brain areas associated with the reward cycle.

“[A] commitment to generous behavior can increase happiness and thereby provide a neural mechanism that links commitment-induced generosity to happiness,” the study authors write.

Instead of dwelling on negative thoughts or worrying about the future, acting now to help improve the lives of others may be the best way to move forward — for individuals, as well as for society.