Donald Trump. President. This happened. Truth really is stranger (and sometimes scarier) than fiction. As a Canadian affected by whatever is happening in the United States, I dreaded this possibility for months now. I traveled the election roller coaster with the highs and the lows, the outside possibilities, the disappointments, the funny moments, the anything-but-funny moments.
A low-level and ever-lurking fear that Trump could actually win this election has lingered and colored my daily experiences of life for some time. I checked the news continually, regularly looked for the Twitter rants and watched the funny clips from the late night shows circulating on social media. And now? My nightmare election scenario has come true: The Donald is moving from the fictional boardroom of The Apprentice, as the “YOU’RE FIRED” king, into the White House. Like many of you, that feels unthinkable and beyond surreal to me.
If only we could rewind time. Would/could we be celebrating a President Bernie Sanders today? I “felt the Bern” the first time I heard Sanders speak. But even if today we were celebrating a first U.S. female president, I would be okay with that. Hillary Clinton would have done a decent job. She is no Barack Obama, but she would have worked hard and fought for many things that our world needs today.
After the initial shock set in last night that Trump was actually going to win, I tuned out and turned in for the night. I didn’t need to watch the train wreck finale; the writing was on the wall. The polls and predictions were wrong, really wrong. There is nothing to contest here – he won.
Post-election, I expected an energy crash after the intense anticipation of the election outcome and then seeing my feared-for scenario come to life. So when I woke up this morning feeling better than I expected, I was shocked. Why? Less than 12 hours after Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States, I feel calmer around this than I have for months.
- How is that possible?
- Have I changed my position on any of this? No.
- Have I embraced the outcome? No, never.
I was well aware that many others had sleepless nights, many woke up in a state of more anxiety, not less. I in no way want to diminish the post-election experiences of others. I also realize that I am in a privileged position: I am Canadian and I have never been directly targeted by this campaign, although I have prayed for others, I have hugged my daughter a little closer many times, and I have felt the pain that I can only imagine was felt by the many groups and people who have been targeted. I intend to keep working towards the causes that matter to me. And so when I felt more energy today than I expected, I needed to explore the “why” and “why now” for clues. I needed to do Self-Reg.
Self-Reg is Dr. Stuart Shanker’s 5 step method for understanding stress and managing energy and tension. I practice Self-Reg as a way of daily living and it helped me process not just what happened in the election but more importantly my own stress.
Step 1: Reframing the Election Outcome
In Self-Reg we learn to read and reframe behavior, not just in our children, but also in ourselves. Recognizing that what looks like misbehavior on the outside is actually stress behaviour is a game-changer in parenting and teaching because it allows you to work on the roots of the behavior: the stressors. I have seen children go from being framed as “the bad kid” to being embraced as being in a brain-body stress state that requires more energy to manage than they have available to them. Self-Reg doesn’t just apply to children. I recognize stress behavior at times in my 81-year old mother, my colleagues, my neighbors and, most importantly for the practice of Self-Reg, in myself.
It would be easy to come up with insults to hurl at those who elected Trump. But the truth is, I think there are so many good people who supported him. The question is, first, why they voted for Trump, and then, why now? I wanted to reframe their behavior as a way to lower my stress. By doing this I am not trying to paint all Trump supporters with a single brush, but I am trying to understand the bigger picture here of how this may have happened. Reframing what looks like “misbehaviour” (that includes the ‘what’s wrong with these people’ sorts of judgments) as stress behavior is the starting place.
The triune brain is a model from Paul MacLean that shows three different areas of the brain: the “blue brain” neocortex, the “red brain” limbic system, and the brown reptilian brain. This is an over-simplification of very complex brain processes that I will leave to the neuroscientists to explain. But I find it useful in thinking about stress behavior and misbehaviour, or in the context of the election outcome, to use the triune brain for thinking about stress behavior versus deliberate, logical and reasoned outcomes. I ask myself a simple question to begin reframing a behavior in myself or others: Is ‘blue brain’, home of the prefrontal cortex and calm and alert thinking, running the show? Or is the ‘red brain’ – the limbic system and headquarters for releasing the stress responses of fight, flight, and freeze – in charge?
Oversimplified I know, but still helpful. I instantly recognize that there may be a sea of red brains “running the show” as part of the explanation for the sea of Republican red we also saw across the electoral map last night.
When I told Stuart how I was feeling this morning after last night’s election outcome he explained this:
The issue here was never simply Trump: it was the number of people, in both camps, that became so hyperaroused that their pre-frontal cortex was under the yoke of their limbic system and not the other way around. It’s not just reasoning that gets suppressed when this happens, but all the domains of our model: emotion regulation, empathy, the social brain.
This was a limbic election grounded in kindled limbic alarms and the big surge of adrenaline that comes with that.
The more voters are in a hyperaroused state, the more they long for a “strong leader,” which is precisely the theme that stood out in the exit polls. That’s what being in a persistent state of fight-or-flight produces: a longing to feel safe.
But at the end of the day there has to have been more that was involved. I suspect that what we really saw here was a society that was already overstressed, looking at all of our 5 domains. In other words, a society that was ripe for a “limbic election.”
As I reframe and see stress behavior for what it is, I begin to understand the election outcome differently. It truly, as Stuart says, was a limbic election. That realization alone allows me to see friends, family and neighbours who supported and contributed to it with much softer eyes.
Step 2: Recognize the Stressors
These softer eyes brought a reframe of my own judgment over the last months of anyone that would even consider voting for Trump. That was my own default stress behavior fed by stressors in multiple domains, many of which had nothing to do with the election. But the “limbic” nature of the election worked its stress response wear and tear on my brain-body as well.
Stressors are anything that causes tension in any of our hundreds of brain-body self-regulation systems and then require us to expend energy to deal with the stressor and restore ourselves to homeostasis (balance). So what were some of my stressors leading up to the election?
Biological domain: Less sleep the nights of the debates and election-related events, waking up with the urge to check news for updates, eating less well when caught in a stress cycle, the visual impact of seeing rally images everywhere I went, the auditory impact of both voices of the candidates became dysregulating over time. But I also have my own biological stressors that had nothing to do with the election: asthma, and a shoulder injury that’s invading my sleep, for example.
Emotion domain: Worry, fear, and anxiety for sure but also a strong desire, a sense of longing for a decent outcome, the limbo feeling and anticipation of the unknown.
Cognitive domain: The election in sound bites, flashes, 140-character tweets that impact my ability to focus and attend in a calm and alert way. Some of the interviews with political scientists, pollsters, and election experts left me on information overload. I didn’t want to be consumed by the election, but it undoubtedly seeped into my everyday world.
Social domain: I remember a taxi ride in New Jersey last May from a Trump supporter and noticing the “red brain” response that was bubbling up inside. Not only did I disagree with him, I suddenly wasn’t able to relate to him and enjoy the conversations I usually strike up in a taxi. Another stressor in the social domain is not being able to read the political stance of some of my close American friends. Feeling strongly in my own opinions, but not knowing theirs was always a thought that came to mind.
Prosocial domain: Empathy is such an expensive emotion and so is a sense of injustice. Both have been strongly evoked over the last few months. Today, as I reframe the behavior of the masses who elected Trump, the empathy I feel for all of those people who have felt in some way attacked or threatened by Trump, who are feeling excluded, at risk, vulnerable or downright afraid, is almost heart-breaking. It’s hard to think about, truth told. One of my big disappointments with the outcome is that I had hoped post-election that someone would step in and support Standing Rock and that hope all but disappeared last night.
Step 3: Reduce the Stress
With so many stressors contributing to my heightened stress, why do I feel better today? Several stressors were instantly reduced the minute the outcome was clear:
- Unexpectedly, I slept better last night than I have in a while
- I decided to turn off the TV once the outcome was clear so I spared myself the ongoing drama and even the acceptance speeches and all that would follow
- I was instantly done listening to the polls, commentators, and experts
- The limbo was over. I find limbo excruciating and so therefore energy draining. Yes, it’s the worst case scenario from my perspective but it’s done and we can move on. I use a “spilled milk” approach in that if I can do something about it I do, but if it’s spilled, well I don’t use any more energy thinking about that already done deal. I move onto the ‘now what’, which is a more hopeful and less helpless place.
Step 4: Reflect & enhance stress awareness
I could clearly feel the low-level anxiety hovering over my day yesterday and many days over the last few months. I practice Self-Reg regularly so this is something I notice quite easily now and I can recognize where in my body the stress lives. But it wasn’t until this morning that I woke up with more lightness than expected, a bit more at least, that I realized some of the hidden stressors from the above list had been zapping energy without my noticing it fully for what it was.
Using the Thayer Matrix to think about that limbic-driven high energy-high tension state I have been in lately, I see that I too was stuck in “red”, in that top right quadrant. I know from experience that staying in high energy-high tension (HE/HT) state for too long is inevitably followed by either the dreaded low energy, high tension state (LE/HT) in the grey bottom right quadrant or a period of rest and restoration in the bottom left low energy-low tension “blue”. The Matrix, of course, is also an oversimplification of very complex brain-body states, but I find it very helpful for quick “stress awareness” check-ins as part of my daily practice of Self-Reg.
Step 5: Respond and restore energy
So now what?
I clearly need to continuing reducing the tension and restoring energy; that’s part of the recovery. Writing this blog was part of that, a cathartic process. I also notice that I suddenly don’t want to watch or read a thing about the election, it’s as if I cannot stomach it. What may be going on is brain-body wisdom and I just need to listen. I need a break from the speeches, the commentators, the critiques, the news. Honestly what good will it do now? I need to soothe my limbic alarm around all of this. At the end of the day, I know that this will be okay, somehow it will be okay. I see the limbic nature of the election for what it was. It got me swept up in the spiral too.
Today I plan to rake some autumn leaves, maybe play a game of cards or two with my daughter (who always beats me), have a nice healthy dinner and then a good night’s sleep.
Reframing this election with a Self-Reg lens left me feeling calmer and more hopeful than I imagined possible. And more importantly, it left me with some answers to the question: What now? Well for starters some leaf raking, a few games of Crazy Eights, and a few extra prayers tonight. Tomorrow is a new day.