The Monday after the election, two days after the announcement of a winner ended an excruciating post-Election Day wait, my fellow Forge editors and I did a temperature check on the mood of the week. And in that moment, what we were feeling was… depleted. Freed from the nerve-wracking waiting game of an electoral unknown, we found ourselves battling an uneasy sense of “what now?”
As it turns out, there’s a name for this particular manifestation of extended stress: the “let-down effect.”
The term, which was popularized by the psychologist, author, and UCLA professor Marc Schoen, describes the come-down crash you feel after pushing through a period of acute stress, like the final grind to wrap a demanding work project or a sudden family crisis. You might also feel similarly after waiting to see if a despotic head of state will accept election defeat or, alternately, launch your nation into a sloppy coup d’etat. (Hypothetically.)
Your body reacts to these stress drills by pumping your body full of fight-or-flight hormones like cortisol and adrenaline — a response that humans evolved to escape life-threatening danger. For a moment, you become physiologically primed for survival. All the while, your immune system takes a hit, leaving you more susceptible to auto-inflammatory flare-ups, infections, and illness.
You’ve probably noticed this stress-sickness cycle at some point in your life. Think: the flu that leaves you bedridden on your first day of a much-needed vacation, or the impressively angry cold sore that crowns your lip after a major presentation to your boss.
But the effect isn’t always physical. You might experience an emotional crash, too.
In retrospect, I can point to one particularly loud and clear emotional let-down effect from my own life: the publication of my first book, a few years ago. As is true of many first-time authors, the book was by far my biggest professional and creative accomplishment to date. It was also exhausting. I wrote the book in a yearlong gust of adrenaline during weekends, while holding down a full-time job, plus juggling intermittent freelance writing assignments and some semblance of a social life. I couldn’t wait for it all to be over.
But once the manuscript was completed and released, and the requisite promotional interviews given, my sense of accomplishment was overshadowed by aimlessness. I’d spent so many weeks and months pushing myself to the limits of my brain waves, and then I was done. Where would I turn my energy now? The abrupt transition left me feeling depressed.
It makes intuitive sense that the switch from “high-alert” to “what now?” might be emotionally jarring as well as physically draining. When we’re too stressed for too long, both our physical and mental health can suffer — and those effects don’t necessarily turn off when the acute stress event has passed. Instead, we may find ourselves wired on stress fumes and wondering where the heck to redirect our nervous energy.
That may be especially true of this moment, when the emotional “what now” is compounded by the encroaching reality of a very not-normal holiday season.
One way to address the “what now?” is, well, to address it. What can you do now to create a sense of momentum—and agency—in the near-term? Think of something doable but significant, and steer just a tiny bit of your energies in its direction. Will you act on a sudden urge to clean house? Re-up your involvement in local mutual aid efforts? Hunker down on that stack of unread books taunting you from your nightstand? Will you make peace with staying put for the holidays, and let your family know your plans sooner rather than later?
You won’t solve everything that ails you, but you’ll regain a sense of forward motion. And that counts for a lot more than you may think.