Feeling down? A neurobiologist explains why your brain is in a post-election slump

Postpartum election depression.
Postpartum election depression.
Image: Reuters/Eliana Aponte
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Feeling a bit blue? Don’t just blame your feelings on the new president-elect of the US—your brain is wired for a post-election come down.

We’ve just sat through months (years?) of fights and scandals. The pre-election build-up ended with a bang: big parties for the victors and desperate mourning and regrouping for the defeated. And now, just over a week later, we’re expected to get back to business as if the world is still spinning in the same direction it always has. Wow, what a ride! What’s going to happen next?!

Desolation? Well, it was a good ride while it lasted. Combined with the waning fall light and the dropping temperatures, and no matter who you wanted to win, the winter may be starting to feel quite bleak. As a neurobiologist, I’m going to call this the election post-partum blues.

Brains are relative. Anytime a rapid change happens, the brain takes a while to catch up. When that change means the absence of a really salient stimulus—such as the past 18 months of pre-election anticipation—it can be depressing.

The high we experience during nail-biting elections and sports finals can feel almost like a drug. The reason addictive drugs are addictive is because they contain chemicals that deeply tap into our limbic circuits—in other words, they make us feel rewarded when the circuit is activated by the anticipation of an event, not the event itself. This is thanks to multiple systems in our brains: Serotonin from the raphe nucleus modulates how excitable our brain areas are; dopamine from the ventral tegmental area tells the nucleus accumbens how rewarding an anticipated action might be; and areas like the amygdala and prefrontal cortex get us amped and attentive. When we stop habitually activating those neural pathways—whether that’s through real-life substance abuse or just the constant buzz of an election campaign—we can go into withdrawal.

These chemical actions are called reward predictors, and they evolved in our brains for the purpose of anticipating the environment. See a shadow? Hide and maybe avoid a predator. Smell food? Move toward it and maybe find a meal. The more certain a predictor becomes or the more directly it taps into those reward-prediction circuits, the more your brain feeds the circuits responsible. Election crazy begets more election crazy, and your body starts to feed off the assumption that you’re going to keep cramming it with more polls and analysis. More scandals and outpouring of nationalistic pride? Watch those circuits grow!

But then the election ends, leaving you with those big, hyper-potentiated circuits accustomed to a 24/7 election diet. When nothing in the environment matches anymore, it can cause a chemical crash. For some, the excitement may turn into real fear, like riding a rollercoaster that skips the track. For others, the current turmoil may actually be calming, like a hair of the dog that hits those election circuits so they don’t trigger withdrawal.

Now that the election is over, undoing that neural growth will take time. During this period, the circuit will keep firing, and you’ll have to decide whether to give in and feed it or choose to tough it out. So now that we have new battles to fight and work to get on with, what can you do to avoid falling into a post-election pit? Or, having already sunk into one, how do you escape?

From a psychological perspective, there are many paths forward. To start, knowing that your brain is taking time to chemically rewire can offer some important perspective.

If you don’t want to remove yourself from all forms of political conversation and go cold turkey, try weening yourself off gradually. Now that your electoral heroin has dried up, you could take social or political methadone by continuing to argue about the future of the GOP, reading about other transient scandals, or maybe catching up on a high-strung TV drama. In most cases, though, continuing to bleed out the chaos in any form is simply redirecting the circuits from one overwrought construct to another.

A more lasting solution will require you to take a step back from the chaos. The best way to avoid psychological waves crashing over you is to move your mind into deeper, calmer waters. Educate yourself (through histories and analyses, not sensationalist wonk blogs), volunteer in your community, or find something that you can connect to that yields tangible results, even if it’s simple or silly.

As we move into the holidays, take a breath, consider what made you angry this fall, and then think about something small and local that you can do to feel empowered. Small changes add up, and positivity also benefits from training your neural circuits. Seeing good in the world and in your own actions is more lasting—and less likely to suddenly end—than a particularly crazy election.