On the night of the election, I watched the results come in online, alone in my apartment. As the numbers leaned farther and farther in Trump’s favor, I had to get up and walk away from the computer. I left the sound on because I couldn’t bear to not know what was happening, but I also couldn’t bring myself to look at the screen anymore. It was too much for me.
Soon, I found myself lying on the floor of my kitchen, curled up into a ball, half listening to the sounds coming from my laptop in my bedroom, and half trying to block them out. My heart was racing, but I felt like I couldn’t do anything but lie there. I was frozen.
And then it dawned on me—what I was feeling in that moment was trauma.
The dictionary definition of trauma is a “deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” I think another good working definition is “something that severely disrupts our sense of safety and security.” By these definitions, the election of Donald Trump and his actions since taking office certainly qualify as traumas.
Ever since the night of the election, I’ve been making a concerted effort, without even realizing it, to avoid being triggered. I don’t watch Trump’s interviews or press conferences. I don’t watch videos of Trump supporters denigrating others. These choices have been guided solely by a feeling in my gut that says, “You don’t want to do that.” But it’s becoming clear to me that these decisions are actually PTSD coping mechanisms.
Coping with the trauma of Donald Trump is difficult, because it is ongoing. One of the key skills I learned when I was in therapy was how to recognize that even though my body may be exhibiting a fear response, there is no imminent threat. I learned to picture my assault as a tiger and imagine an invisible cage around it. “It’s okay to feel afraid,” my therapist told me, “but know also that the threat is contained.”
Now, not only is the tiger out of the cage, it’s sitting in the White House.
I frequently see social media posts with my “daily reminder that this is not normal.” And while I appreciate the efforts to remind everyone to stay vigilant and prevent a repeat performance of Nazi Germany, I can’t help but feel that these “not normal” posts are, in and of themselves, triggering.
The goal of the “not normal” reminders is to prevent us from getting comfortable. I understand this. The day that we do not feel shocked by Trump’s actions is the day when we will sit back and let them continue. But the “not normal” reminders have a negative side effect—they keep us in a permanent state of trauma.
I worry that our constant efforts to remind each other that the state of our country is “not normal” may be unintentionally crippling a portion of the population that wants to help in the resistance but is held back by PTSD. That day-in, day-out feeling that things are not normal—that’s what trauma feels like. And living in a constant state of trauma impedes one’s ability to resist.
As an example of how this works, look at the cases of domestic violence or human trafficking victims. The daily trauma they suffer often prevents them from escaping, even when they may have the opportunity to do so. Their sense of safety is so severely disrupted that all they can focus on is basic survival. And that often means staying with and obeying their abusers.
A traumatized population can suffer the same fate at the hands of an abusive government. When we’re in a constant state of being triggered, many of us will go into “freeze” mode and feel helpless to do anything to stop the abuse. Many of us will go into “flight” mode and turn off the news altogether, losing any source of information about what is “not normal.” Many of us will go into “fight” mode and blindly attack the first thing we see; often that’s the messenger, rather than the perpetrator. The more past traumas we have, the more crippling these responses are.
If we are going to build an effective resistance, we need to stop telling our allies that feeling normal in Trump’s America is some kind of transgression. We will not be able to fight a tyrannical administration unless we recognize and try to mitigate the trauma it is causing. And an essential part of mitigating trauma is helping those who experience it attain a sense of normalcy in their day-to-day lives.
To those who are working to build the resistance: I know you don’t want anyone to start normalizing Trump’s actions, but be mindful that your “not normal” news shares can be triggering for your friends. I’m not asking you to stop posting the news, just to change the way you do it. Use trigger warnings. Offer support to anyone in your network who is feeling scared or unsafe. For every worrisome headline that you share, share something positive and uplifting.
Most importantly, remind your friends that even though what is happening in the government is “not normal,” they should not feel guilty for wanting to find normalcy in their day-to-day lives. This is what a trauma-informed anti-Trump movement looks like. It reminds the participants that it is okay to take a break from the news. It is okay to avoid your triggers. It is okay to prioritize self care. It is okay to laugh. It is okay to feel happy and optimistic. If we neglect these activities that bring us normalcy, we will end up destroying ourselves rather than our enemy.
Feeling normal does not cripple us; it rejuvenates us. Feeling normal prepares us for a stronger fight.