Oaklanders deal with post-election stress

Participants whoop and giggle during an exercise in a laughter yoga class in Oakland. Some came to this class in part to relieve election-related stress.

Participants whoop and giggle during an exercise in a laughter yoga class in Oakland. Some came to this class in part to relieve election-related stress.

A group of about 10 people stood in a circle, each taking turns calling out their worries.

“The world,” one chimed in.

“Poor health,” said another.

“Traffic.” “The media.” “Fascist tendencies.” “Fakers.” “Greedy corporations.” “Violating the Constitution.”

Members of the group then symbolically tossed each worry into an imaginary pot by touching the tops of their heads, then throwing their arms down. They then stirred their worries together, and after a joint count to three, picked up the imaginary pot and heaved it away, as they filled the room with raucous laughter and clapping.

This exercise, called “worry stew,” was part of Monday’s session at an Oakland meetup for laughter yoga––a practice which uses laughter (whether natural or forced) in conjunction with playful activities and breathing exercises to relieve stress. Some, like Amos Lans, attended this session in part because of the stress they’ve been feeling since the election.

Since the election, Lans said between chuckles, that he’s been feeling “a mixture of terrified, scared, dread, horror, anger, and some grief, some depression and grief.” He said he feels this way because he has “very, very, very grave concerns” about the potentially damaging effects that the next administration could have on climate change and the environment, as well as the hatred engendered by his rhetoric.

In October 2016, the American Psychological Association (APA) shared the results of a survey which found that more than half of Americans –– Republicans and Democrats alike––reported that the election was a very or somewhat significant source of stress. In Alameda County, where only approximately 15 percent of voters casted their ballots for president-elect Donald J. Trump, some are feeling anxious about the arrival of a Trump presidency. Mental health and relaxation professionals across Oakland say they are seeing heightened levels of election-related stress and anxiety among the city’s residents.

Juliette Wilk, a massage therapist and owner of Life Balance Massage, has had clients with regularly-scheduled appointments ask to come in sooner because of their election-related stress. “It’s really interesting, because I was definitely doing this for previous elections and never had this experience where so many people were just so outwardly and vocally just upset and just stressed and anxious about it,” she said. Wilk has been a massage therapist for 15 years, and in that time saw the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004, and both elections of Barack Obama. 

Of her clients’ stress levels, Wilk said, “They don’t know how to process. Everything’s very confusing.”

Both in the lead-up to and the aftermath of the election, Wilk says she’s noticed the physical effects of stress in her clients––from tight shoulders and upper back muscles to what she calls a “protective body posture,” in which the shoulders are hunched forward and the chest and abdomen are tucked in.

Dahlia Silvers, another massage therapist and owner of Massage by Dahlia, said she hadn’t noticed the same physical responses, but had observed high levels of stress and “a sense of disturbance” among her clients.

During a recent exchange with a client, Silvers had mentioned she had been waking up early in the morning with an inexplicable feeling of fear.

The client’s response was: “You’re sleeping?”

“And I thought, ‘Holy crap!’” Silvers said. “So he’s not sleeping, apparently.”

In response to her clients’ heightened stress levels, she said, “I’ve been trying to just keep as quiet as I can during the sessions so that people can really relax.” She said she tries not to bring the topic of the election up, but it often comes up when she asks her clients how they are.

“‘How are you?’ is an interesting question in the past couple of weeks, because people are disturbed by what’s going on,” she said. According to Silvers, clients are responding to that question with statements like: “‘Doing okay, you know, given the circumstances.’”

“I’m grateful that I have this gift and skill and training to do this right now, just for people to calm down and to help them calm down even for a moment,” Silvers added.

Honor Genetski is a licensed family and marriage therapist who sees about ten clients––teenagers and adults––in her part-time private practice. She said that about half of her teenage clients brought up the election during discussions, she said—the other half had processed their feelings about it by speaking with family members at school by participating in a walkout. But with her adult clients, she said, “I can’t think of anybody who didn’t bring it up, because everybody just really needed a space to just be heard and kind of creating some language about what they’ve been feeling.”

For some clients, she said, Trump’s victory has exacerbated a lot of people’s existing concerns. For example, she said, “if someone really struggled with feeling disempowered in their day to day life, or if someone really struggled with gender inequality in their day-to-day life, Trump, the outcome of the election, really triggered that for them.”

Other mental health professionals, like Leah Kimble-Price, are seeing the effects that Trump’s future presidency is having on specific populations. Kimble-Price is a licensed family and marriage therapist with a private practice in Oakland, primarily for families of color. She’s also a community mental health worker who leads nonprofit trainings and workshops.

She noted that her clients and her colleagues are feeling stressed for various election-related reasons. She said she has African American colleagues working in nonprofit community mental health who fear losing their federally-funded jobs. Others in the undocumented community feel like they will lose family members to deportation and wonder if they should get lawyers. She said that political arguments among family members are also causing people stress.

Kimble-Price added that another point of stress is “feeling like your country doesn’t reflect you, or that you’re not seen or you’re not valuable.” While that has been on an ongoing concern for people of color, she said, it is now more of an issue for women too, “with having an open misogynist as our president-elect.”

Genetski also said she’s seen a lot of people come out of the election more motivated to help other people and to contribute to causes that they care about. Some of her clients have said they want to seek out connections with others who want to push for change or like they want to fight for what they believe in. “It’s really inspiring to me,” she said.

Kimble-Price is working to ensure that politically active people also practice self-care. She, along with another licensed family and marriage therapist, Deanna Jimenez, have been leading a series of healing workshops for social justice activists of color in recent months.

She said that social justice activists have “incredibly high” levels of trauma, and the goal of the workshops is to decrease the amount of stress that participants take on when talking about race, conversations which she said can have incredibly high stakes. “The emotional stress of often times having to justify or explain your humanity or reason why you should be allowed to live, has dire consequences on people’s health and their emotional well-being,” she said.

She added that, at a recent training, she coached people to think about their personal goals when having conversations or debates. “In this conversation, you’re talking with someone, and they are someone you care and they’re hurting your feelings, then I would focus there,” she said. “‘This is a really challenging conversation to have with you because I care about you and you’re saying things that are harmful to me.’ That’s much more impactful than, ‘You’re wrong,’ or ‘I disagree with you’ or ‘I have to educate you.’”

Kimble-Price said she hopes that now that the election is past, the workshop will help people have these conversations in more public spaces––at work, on the street, and on social media.

She also said that social justice activists don’t always take care of themselves or give themselves permission to take a break or to do something other than organizing. “But you know, managing your emotional health is a revolutionary act,” she said.

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