A little after 11pm on November 8, Kaya Axelsson wandered the streets of Capitol Hill, unable—or maybe unwilling—to process the night’s events. Just hours earlier she’d joined supporters of Seattle-based congressional candidate Pramila Jayapal at Optimism Brewing to watch election returns. And though Axelsson was overcome with pride as the numbers tilted in the uberprogressive candidate’s favor, any impulse to celebrate was squelched by the surreal reality that the country’s next president would be someone many viewed as a dangerously unqualified reality television star with views on immigration that could generously be described as “not of the past three centuries.”
Wallowing isn’t in Axelsson’s playbook—she’s a community organizer who works with nonprofits—so she did what came naturally: She mobilized. “If you fall on the fight side of fight-or-flight and you need to do something, message me,” she wrote to her more than 1,300 Facebook friends that night, just minutes after the Associated Press called the election in Donald Trump’s favor. “I’m organizing.”
If the country—not to mention the at-risk communities caught in the president-elect’s crosshairs—is going to survive the next four years, it’ll be in large part because people like Axelsson have the will to respond to a crisis before defining it. But what about everyone whose first instinct on election night was to go fetal? How do they process that toxic mix of shock and anger and fear and despair to find some semblance of sanity in a world that suddenly feels anything but sane? In a word, act.
Here’s a conversation starter for your next dinner party: The electoral college isn’t the worst part of our election process; it’s the interminable period between the vote and inauguration day. Candidate Trump made a lot of outlandish claims about what he’d do if he managed to crash the Oval Office, but which ones were the boasts of a man who lived for applause and which will actually come to pass? Only Steve Bannon and whoever else happens to be whispering in Trump’s ear at this very moment know for sure, making the postelection months that much more difficult to bear.
“Ambiguity is more distressing than fear,” says George S. Everly Jr., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Without a source of angst on which to focus, that ambiguity can metastasize into anxiety. “And the mental health world isn’t very good at managing anxiety,” Everly says. Instead he suggests pinpointing the specific part of a Trump presidency you find so troubling. “If you’re fearful of a tiger, you understand the threat,” he says. “The more you understand about the enemy, the more confident you become.”
Which isn’t to say you won’t be left with a generalized feeling of despair. But hope and despair aren’t on opposite ends of the same emotional spectrum. “We often tend to think that things are either good or bad, but they’re not,” says Steen Halling, a professor emeritus of psychology at Seattle University. “Hope and despair can coexist.” So even though you may justifiably freak out about a Trump-Putin bromance or environmental policies that would make even Monsanto executives cringe, it’s possible to take heart in the little victories of your friends and communities.
In fact, just as with other distresses we encounter, directing our thoughts outward—rather than letting them rot us from the inside—is the key to breaking out of a postelection funk. And that’s why getting out of your emotional bunker and into the existential fight for the soul of the country can be so therapeutic. “Sure, there’s the national election, but then there are the groups you care about, whose interests and rights you can help to protect,” says Steven Berkowitz, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the Penn Center for Youth and Family Trauma Response and Recovery. “Whether you do that by contributing money to an organization or doing some grassroots work yourself, that’s a level at which life really matters to people.”
Which brings us back to Kaya Axelsson. Just hours after Trump victoriously addressed his supporters in New York—and as most Seattleites were waking up from what they hoped was a supremely messed-up nightmare—she was on the phone with the staff of Velocity Dance, getting permission to use the V2 arts space in Capitol Hill. And four days later, she welcomed hundreds of concerned locals to the converted warehouse for a night of brainstorming ways to protect those who might bear the brunt of the president-elect’s forthcoming policies. “My greatest fear is that this election breeds isolation in people,” Axelsson said before the event. “People too often stop themselves from taking action by going through a lot of questions as to why they would be the right person to do so.”
It just so happens that, in this case, taking action can be as much about self-care as it is about selflessness. Seattle U’s Halling recalls interviewing a group of social activists who’d protested Ronald Reagan’s support for the Contras in Nicaragua. “And I’ll never forget what one of them said: ‘Even though it may not make a difference in the long run, doing the best I can makes it easier to read the paper in the morning.” Nothing may make Twitter tolerable for the next four years, but it’s a start.