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Healthy Living

Trumping Trauma

As we head into the final phase of this hair-raising election, many of us share comedian Seth Meyers’ view that this is like watching the last 10 minutes of a slasher movie — “OH MY GOD, Hillary, he’s still alive!”

It’s a relief to laugh but this is no joke. For many people, the 2016 election is more than stressful. It’s traumatic.

Watching Trump abuse and attack is alarming enough, but what may be equally alarming is realizing nobody seems willing or able to contain him. For people who were bullied as children, watching a presidential candidate proceed as a bully unchecked re-opens old wounds and heightens anxiety.

Trump’s candidacy has brought violence to the boiling point. But it has also released a toxic cloud of horror, fear, rage, and contempt.

Escaping this is no easy task. Yet some people have a harder time of it than others. From what I can tell, people who are particularly permeable internally to the moods and inner states of others are having real trouble now shielding themselves from the turbulent and disturbing national mood. Often people like this were not given much help as children learning how to manage and contain bad feelings.

Of course, some of those affected are children themselves. Reading about a Muslim boy who’s having nightmares about Trump is sad, and yet another reminder of the pervasive ill-effects of the 2016 election.

This election has become frightening. It’s making people feel they aren’t safe. The sense of being under threat is compounded by the barrage of bad news and Trump’s middle of the night tweets. What may have seemed over-stimulating at first has now become numbing. It’s hard to imagine what still could shock us.

Feeling over-stimulated, numbed, threatened and trapped: these are hallmarks of people under traumatic threat. If trauma becomes overwhelming, it can rupture a kind of protective psychological shield, and leave people flooded with feelings of anxiety and helplessness. At its worst, trauma makes people lose confidence, not only in what they can handle, but in who they are.

That’s starting to happen here. We’ve always taken pride in being not only tolerant but welcoming to people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. The bedrock of our national identity depends on this, and on a basic human respect for others. Setting us at odds like this makes us feel like we’re not a family anymore.

As Michelle Obama said, “We need to stop this madness”. I couldn’t agree more. This isn’t good for us, either as individuals or as a nation.

Trump’s not going to stop, though. He seems to be spinning out of control. But we can still take steps to protect ourselves.

Studies of mother-child pairs who were at ground zero on September 11th have shown a key difference between children who suffered long term psychological effects and those who did not. If the mother was able to pull back from the terrifying events well enough to keep her child’s experience in mind, it helped her child recover a sense of control over his own mind, so he was able to emerge with resilience and an intact sense of self. Children who did not have mothers like that had a much harder time afterwards.

What matters with trauma is recovering a sense of mastery, not over the events themselves, but over the experience of them — and we can help each other with that, by keeping each other in mind.

Trump’s going into his final tailspin, but we can protect ourselves from this by stepping back, so we’re not so consumed by anxiety and have the distance for a more balanced perspective.

Michelle Obama is helping us to get our bearings by reminding us, “This is not normal…It is intolerable. And it doesn’t matter what party you belong to”.

This may not be normal in politics, but most of us have seen it elsewhere, perhaps at work or even on a playground, when there’s a sudden eruption of intense anger and conflict. Passions run high; people take sides.

When this happens on a psychiatric unit, experienced clinicians know there’s probably one person at the tip of the tornado — and it is always someone who is using maladaptive tactics to manage anxiety and protect self-esteem.

Knowing that helps. It means we don’t have to be at war anymore. The problem lies outside ourselves.

Three of the tactics which cause the most trouble are evident here, in the behavior of Trump. On the off-chance anyone thinks I’ve evaluated Trump in my practice as a psychiatrist: I have not. My observations are based on information available to anyone who’s been following the news.

At times, someone may try to hold onto a sense of himself as all-good by seeing others as all-bad. This is clearly polarizing; it sets up people as deadly enemies. Trump did this, for example, when he insisted Clinton has “tremendous hate in her heart”, and called her “the devil.”

The devil? Just who has hate in his heart? Charging others with bad qualities which you might have yourself can be another way of protecting self-esteem, but once again, this puts a wedge between people and causes conflict. Trump does this a lot.

Sometimes that tactic morphs into a more malignant one, when someone tries to ward off uncomfortable feelings by pushing them off into other people. Trump is a star at this; he inflames others with his own moods.

Trump acts like he’s under attack and makes us feel like that too. To many of us, Trump’s warnings about a stolen election sound like warnings of violence if Trump doesn’t win. Trump is hanging us off a cliff on that one; he refuses to say he’ll concede defeat.

Your guess is as good as mine, but it certainly seems possible Trump is anxious about the election. If so, Trump may be fighting off his own fears by pushing fear into us instead. Trump has told us flat out he wants to keep us in suspense. He seems to be filling us with anxiety to lessen his own, and is certainly succeeding in that: Trump’s got us all on edge.

Trump’s going down, but we don’t need to go too. We can choose instead to step back and start to heal.

In a recent paper about treating mother-child pairs who were at ground zero, Susan Coates, PhD, concluded with the words, “Attachment can trump trauma.”

Maybe we should try that. It’s time for us to come together, and remember who we are and who we want to be: one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Keeping each other in mind will help us trump Trump.