Post-Election Depression is Coming, So Be Gentle With Yourself

If you’ve noticed yourself feeling more fatigued, sluggish, numb, or even down since the election, you’re not alone.

For some people, it might come as a surprise that a period of time they associate with feelings of relief, hope, or even joy could also be a time when depression symptoms show up. But it actually makes a lot of sense when you consider one compelling theory for why we get depressed in the first place. [1]

Most people will probably experience depression at some point in their lives. It’s pretty much the common cold of mental illnesses. But unlike the common cold, which is caused by a pathogen that enters the body, depression is something the body does to itself. Given how destructive depression can be, and how it can disrupt just about every facet of human functioning, why would our brains be able to do this shitty thing to us?

Depression exists in our neurological repertoire for a reason. At its core, depression isn’t really sadness—its numbness, apathy, fatigue, lack of motivation. It’s like the psychological version of our body’s immune response—adaptive and possibly lifesaving in many cases, but harmful or even devastating when it malfunctions and runs out of control.

One of those “natural” functions of depression is to force the body to rest and recover when needed. It often happens after a stressful event or period of time, whether that event or period was positive or negative, because the body has expended a lot of resources on managing that stress and now needs to rest. Continuing to be super active and do stuff when you need to rest can leave your body vulnerable to illness or other types of harm, so the brain flips the depression switch to “on” and forces you to just stop—stop caring, stop doing stuff, stop trying to go out and experience new things or make new connections, stop expending lots of energy on other people, stop caring about less-important things like showering or getting out of bed early. It makes you sleep more, and sleep is essential to healing.

In this way, emotional pain is a lot like physical pain—another sort of emergency brake that our bodies have. People with congenital analgesia [2], a condition that leaves them incapable of feeling physical pain, often experience permanent injury or even die early on in their lives; without pain, it’s very difficult for them to keep their bodies safe.

Of course, depression doesn’t feel good, but one of the reasons it feels as bad as it does in our modern world is because we’ve created a society that’s incompatible with these types of rhythms. We also live in a culture that expects happiness and high energy all the time. [3]

(This is by no means an argument that major depressive disorder as a mental illness is a product of industrialization. Obviously it’s not, as it’s been recorded across cultures and throughout history. However, it’s undeniable that there’s a lot going on in our culture that makes it more likely to happen, and more severe when it happens.)

Stigma and lack of understanding of mental illness also lead people to do things or think in ways that make their symptoms worse. Suppose you broke your leg and had to wear a cast and avoid putting weight on it for a while. That sucks, obviously, but aside from maybe mentally kicking yourself a bit if the broken bone was somehow your fault, you probably wouldn’t tell yourself that your leg /should not/ be broken right now, that you should “just snap out of it,” and that you’re a useless human being because your leg is in a cast for a while. You certainly wouldn’t rip off the cast and proceed to try to walk around as if your leg weren’t broken.

Yet that’s what we do with depression all the time! That’s especially true when we get depressed after something good happens, or during a time when we think we “ought” to be feeling good. A lot of people out there right now are probably telling themselves, “Why am I depressed now? Biden won. I should be happy.” Actually, neurobiologically speaking, right now is exactly when it makes sense to become depressed.

Unfortunately, I think some people are also taking this in a different direction: “Biden won, yet I feel depressed rather than happy; therefore things must actually be objectively very bad and hopeless.” A quick scroll through Twitter demonstrates how this plays out.

That’s not to say that it’s impossible to make a solid argument for things being objectively very bad and hopeless, although I disagree with that. However, there’s a difference between looking at the facts and deciding that they’re depressing, and feeling depressed and looking at everything through that lens.

There’s also another reason folks are likely to get depressed after the election, and that has to do with self-care and managing expectations. All these weeks/months/years of doomscrolling, ruminating about politics, getting into pointless arguments, et cetera probably left a lot of other areas of folks’ lives untended. Once the stimulation of election season is gone, a lot of people might realize that they’ve neglected a lot of meaningful things and now there’s a big election-shaped hole in their brain.

Some people might’ve also had an unexamined expectation that if Biden wins, they’ll finally get to relax and not worry about politics or the state of the world, or even that if Biden wins, things will get better right away. Obviously, that’s going to be a huge disappointment. For some people, a potential Biden win might’ve been one of the few things to look forward to during the pandemic, and now that it’s happened, there might not be anything else on the horizon that actually feels positive.

Of course, for a lot of folks in this situation, depression may have come up long before the election. Although the four-year adrenaline rush of this administration’s constant assaults on human rights and democratic norms may have allowed some folks to outrun their depression for a while, the crash inevitably comes, and it might come even before the body decides that it’s relatively safe.

Four years ago, I wrote about why we are not going to make it through this if we try to force our brains to be on high alert all the time. [4] I argued that refusing to incorporate Trump’s presidency into our model of the world—to accept that it is happening for now and to stop treating each new tidbit of horrible news as if it were a fire alarm—would inevitably result in burnout.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what ended up happening to a lot of people. And even more regrettably, some of us did it to each other by reposting news articles with alarmist headlines (some of which were almost certainly false or misleading) and speculating wildly all over social media about the imminent collapse of democracy in ways that, while totally valid, also vicariously traumatized others.

There will be time enough to unpack all of that when things calm down a little bit—which I believe they will—but point is, depression is likely to strike right now for a lot of reasons.

I don’t really have any specific thoughts or advice here—if you recognize your own experience in what I’ve written, you probably know better than I do what helps you most when you’re in a depressive episode. But what I really hope folks get out of reading this is to be aware that major events can contribute to triggering a depressive episode even if those events are seen as positive.

If you’re feeling the urge to lay low and rest right now, it’s okay to do that—just try not to isolate yourself from the people you love and to set a date in your calendar to check in with yourself and evaluate whether or to you’re ready to get back out into the world a little bit more (safely), or if you might need some extra support.

THere’s already been a lot on social media about how we shouldn’t stop caring and protesting now that Biden’s won, and lots of understandable snark about people who allegedly think that their political engagement begins and ends with voting in presidential elections. Unfortunately, though, the “just keep fighting no matter what happens and never stop and rest after a major victory” take isn’t really trauma-informed or compatible with like, basic neurobiology. Your body is telling you to stop and rest. Listen to it, or it’ll force you to stop and rest later, when it’s even less convenient.


[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/theory-knowledge/201604/the-behavioral-shutdown-theory-depression

Note: While this is one theory of depression, it’s by no means the only theory or the only explanation for why depression occurs in humans. It’s just the one that’s most relevant to what I’m talking about here.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congenital_insensitivity_to_pain)

[3] https://bookshop.org/books/bright-sided-how-positive-thinking-is-undermining-america/9780312658854

[4] https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/2016/11/21/danger-necessity-normalizing-new-political-reality


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Post-Election Depression is Coming, So Be Gentle With Yourself
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