November 23, 2016
Post-election, some of us are protesting in the streets. And some of us fear we’ll be branded a moron or racist panty-grabber if we reveal hearts full of glee.
Our president-elect has never held public office and has made intentionally surprising, sweeping promises during his campaign. He offered change — and human beings both crave and fear change. He has become the epitome of that ambivalence for a nation.
Will you or people you care about be deported or become a target of violence? Soon after the election, there seemed to be an increase in hate crime, which our president-elect said should stop. Will the thugs listen? What will happen to your health insurance if you bought it through a state exchange created by the Affordable Care Act? The Republican Party and President-elect Trump have opposed the program, and it’s not clear what will happen when and the options you’ll see. How will promised changes in trade deals affect your job, business, or investments?
With the country on the brink of big changes, we now enter the holiday stresses. Will your family fight (more than usual) over Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners? Will you have trouble sitting in a room with your uncle?
Here are a few tools that can help you calm down, even at the dinner table.
• If your neck is stiff, you can stretch it by leaning your head to one side or the other. But there are more discreet moves. Look slightly down and tap your tongue lightly to the roof of your mouth. Putting your tongue to the roof of your mouth is an ancient meditation technique. Try it and see if it works for you.
• Another technique I learned in a yoga class: close your eyes and imagine that your eyeballs are sinking back into your head. This technique may signal calm to the vagus nerve at the base of your skull, the link between the conscious part of the brain and the part that controls our digestion and other systems.
• Wrap your hand around two or three of your longer fingers on your other hand. You can usually do this secretly, in your lap under the table. See how it feels. It works for me. Or massage your palm with your other thumb.
Try these in the bathroom:
• Splash cold water on your face. The purpose is to rouse the vagus nerve to change your bodily state, so if you’re panicky you’ll calm down. Some people put ice packs on their face. Cold water on your face makes your heart slow down, which is good if you’re panicky.
• Take several long deep breaths, spending more time on the outbreath.
• Look at nature photos on your phone. Or look out the window at any available greenery, which can clear your mind, some research has concluded. Skip the email and news during the bathroom phone break.
• Listen to music you find uplifting or soothing, or sing to yourself — under your breath or silently in your head if you’re not able to put on headphones. We all know music affects mood, and music therapists have developed ways to master that effect.
When you have more time:
• Go outdoors in an area with some greenery or water. In one study, scientists tested volunteers after a 50-minute walk through a leafy area at Stanford, which maintains a huge campus. After their dose of greenery, the volunteers were less anxious and more focused. Another group took a walk beside a busy multi-lane highway in Palo Alto and didn’t emerge nearly as refreshed. The same team followed up by scanning the brains of volunteers before and after a leafy walk, and saw evidence of more clam. When I can’t go out, my personal trick is to fuss over my plants, examining them for yellow leaves, checking the soil and well, patting them.
• Spend at least 10 minutes writing down your feelings about whatever is bothering you most. The key here is not just to vent, but cultivate self-compassion, according to some research. Describe your feelings and thoughts matter-of-factly, without judgement. Think of and write down ways in which other people also feel about the election or family conflicts. Express kindness to yourself just as you might to a friend.
• Get a massage. There’s plenty of evidence that massage lowers anxiety, though you shouldn’t believe a number of claims you’ll hear from practitioners. Don’t opt for massages that hurt you, unless you find you feel better afterwards.
• Meditate. It doesn’t have to be complicated or take lots of time. Research has shown benefits with as little as 12 to 30 minutes a day over 8 weeks. Britta Hölzel, a neuroscientist who has coauthored studies finding brain changes from meditation, recommends the book “Full Catastrophe Living,” or a stress reduction mindfulness program offered at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and online.
• Learn a quick concentration technique. When I am panicky, I roll my head around to the right while rolling my eyes to the left. Then I reverse the sequence, rolling my head to the left, while rolling my eyes to the right. It takes practice. A waste of time? Not for me. I can do it reliably now, but it takes concentration. And that’s the secret — doing my little trick distracts me from my panic. You might have other physical tricks, like rolling up your tongue or saying tongue-twisters.