How to cope if your side lost on Election Day

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Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were reviled by many during a bitter campaign. Voters on the losing sid are likely to suffer something akin to grief, maybe even post-traumatic stress disorder, therapists said.

Tuesday, this wild and disturbing presidential campaign season will finally be over. Whoever wins, one thing is clear: Millions of people in our deeply divided nation will be miserable about the outcome.

After a race in which both candidates were reviled by many, and both groups of supporters foresaw apocalyptic threats to their core values and futures, voters on the losing side are likely to suffer something akin to grief, maybe even post-traumatic stress disorder, therapists said. Even the winners will be left to wonder why millions of their fellow citizens, let alone friends and family members, made choices they just don't understand.

Then what?

The emotionally healthy thing to do would be to accept the result, learn from it, and figure out how to channel that frustrated emotional energy into some kind of positive community action. Or, maybe even learn how to talk more fruitfully with the other side.

But that may not come easily - or quickly.

Tamar Chansky, a psychologist with offices in Philadelphia and Plymouth Meeting, specializes in helping people deal with disappointment. Coming to terms with loss, she said, is a lengthy process. "People will be processing for a long time," she said. "How it feels in the beginning is not how it will always feel."

Terri Erbacher, a school psychologist and professor at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, said the campaign has been traumatizing for some people, particularly women who have been victims of sexual aggression. She thinks Trump supporters will also have trouble not taking a loss personally. She's not confident that acceptance will be the norm.

"Regardless of the candidate, I do think it's going to be riddled with tension for the next four years," she said.

Fear of the unknown

A survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) last month found that 52 percent of American adults thought this election has been a very or somewhat significant source of stress. Eighty-two percent of voters questioned in a New York Times/CBS News poll last week said the campaign had made them feel "disgusted." Most thought that neither candidate could bring the country together.

Frank Farley, a Temple University psychology professor and former president of the APA, said unusually high uncertainty and neophobia - fear of the unknown - have heightened anxiety for many voters this year. Both candidates - Clinton, a woman, and Trump, a businessman with no political experience - "deviate from our baseline" expectations of presidential candidates, Farley said.

People are always nervous about a transition of power, he said, but the "incivility" of this election has made things worse.

The months of campaigning and the repetition of messages have also taken a toll. "The length of this campaign is horrendous," he said. "I think the electorate is sliding into burnout."

He thinks some voters could suffer from "post-traumatic election distress." Like Erbacher, he suspects it will take a while to recover. "It could be a long post-decision process," he said.

George James, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Council for Relationships and program director of the Couple and Family Therapy Program at Thomas Jefferson University, has worked with athletes. He sees parallels between voters and intense sports fans who ache when their team loses. "When . . . someone that we want to win loses, it's personal. It feels like we lost. It's not that Hillary or Donald lost the race, [it's] 'I lost,' " he said.

"I think that loss hurts, and when we hurt, we can sometimes act out in ways that aren't healthy."

To carry the analogy further, James said a sports record can affect the way a group feels about itself. Philadelphia, for example, can seems to be a city that doesn't win. When a team gets close to a big title and loses, it's extra disappointing because "you saw an opportunity to have a different identity."

This kind of thinking, he said, may be especially true for women supporting Clinton, who would be the first female president.

The morning after

Several therapists agreed that it's OK to delay reaching a hand across the aisle for a little while. If you're really upset, you'll feel more supported if you stick with people you know agree with you. They also suggested taking a break from political news.

Oh, and don't expect people who are threatening to move to Canada to actually do it.

James said disappointed voters could direct some of their energy toward teaching their children the kinds of values they want to see dominate a future America.

Chansky said people need to take some time to absorb the "information" from the election results before trying to go forward. She quoted a mentor, who told her, "Buried feelings are buried alive."

People, she said, often experience terrible shocks that initially seem insurmountable. "We don't think we can live with whatever has just happened, and then we find that we do," she said.

Michael Thase, a psychiatrist who directs the mood and anxiety disorders program at the University of Pennsylvania, said it may help to remember that both parties have won - and lost - over the years. "Both sides have had their heartbreaks," he said.

Farley pointed out that the United States survived the Depression and many other threats.

James said losers can look forward. "In four years," he said, "there will be another election."

In the meantime, Farley would like to see people try "micro-affections," an expression he made up, with political adversaries they are close to. You can say, "I love you, but I can't get with your candidate. Let's not talk about it today."

He would like to see us try to bring back more respectful conversation. "Words matter," he said. "Words can hurt. Let's try to tamp down the argumentative culture that we have been seeing all year long and start to reorient our society to a more civil place."

sburling@phillynews.com

215-854-4944

@StaceyABurling

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