Lisa Feldman Barrett
Distinguished Professor of Psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett // photo by Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University

by Thea Singer

The 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion was a roller coaster for many people, pro­moting strong feel­ings from anx­iety to depres­sion, anger to exu­ber­ance. The sur­prising results brought the emo­tions to a peak for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton sup­porters. Lisa Feldman Bar­rett, Uni­ver­sity Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Psy­chology at North­eastern, focuses on the nature of emo­tion from both psy­cho­log­ical and neu­ro­sci­en­tific per­spec­tives. We asked her what people can do to deal with their strong reac­tions, how the neg­a­tive tenor of the cam­paign might affect them psy­cho­log­i­cally over the long term, and how to regain equi­lib­rium as indi­vid­uals and as a nation.

Why was the response to this election so strong, and what can people do to deal with the range of intense emotions resulting from it?

We live in a divided country. Our country, like all countries, exists as social reality, which rests on collective agreement. The U.S. exists with its laws, practices, and values because its citizens consent to live by them. We may disagree in our beliefs (for example, we might not agree on abortion rights), but we agree that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. Given the gaping political chasm that divides our country, the two sides can no longer hear one another clearly. One side of the electorate will always feel that their idea of America has been violated. People’s emotions have reflected that. Those who support Trump are jubilant. Those who support Clinton are angry and feeling hopeless. There’s a Turkish expression, hayal kırıklığı, that translates as “broken dreams”; it captures the sense of frustration due to loss that so many are experiencing. And these conflicting emotions continue to keep us from understanding one another.

Strong emotions like these shrink the horizon of our experience to right now. They make it difficult to remember that this is just a single moment in time, and life goes on. But it is not a good idea to become trapped in the present. Try to see this election as one event in the timeline of your life. Get some perspective. To break the ever-present looming doom, take a moment now and then to appreciate small pleasures. If you look around you right now, you can find something, however small, to be grateful for.

Meanwhile, sleep enough, exercise, and eat well. Hug your loved ones. Find something to savor and take a walk on a beautiful fall day. Be thankful that we live in a democracy and that we have elections to be emotional over.

Numerous commentators have noted the contentiousness of this campaign. What effect do you think the negativity has had on people’s psychological well-being? Do you expect the effects to diminish now that the election is over?

The human body evolved to deal with periodic large stressful events, so periodic big stress spikes have little effect on health. But the constant drizzle of uncertainty and causal brutality we live with every day is very bad for the nervous system. This sort of stress gets under the skin, interferes with your immune system, and can make you sick. In the extreme, it remodels your brain, killing neurons, making you depressed and reducing your ability to remember and learn. The result: more depression, more obesity, more heart disease, more opiate addiction, and so on. Given how divided the country is, and how the election solidified a tone of social discourse that is harsh and Kafka-like, I don’t expect the effects will diminish anytime soon.

How might we, as individual citizens, work to rebuild trust among ourselves?

Open your mind. Listen and learn, don’t presume and preach. Anger can be a form of ignorance.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on November 15, 2016.