Trump Trauma

How to Cope with the Trauma of Trump

This presidency has caused an enduring traumatic shock.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / Joseph Sohm

I am a trauma therapist in New York City. In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, both my patients and colleagues were in shock. Many of them told me they felt unsafe and vulnerable. “I feel like I did after 9/11,” one said. “People on the subways look like they are in mourning,” said another.

I knew exactly how they felt. In the days following the 2016 election, my own mind struggled to focus. I was prone to spontaneous tears. It was difficult to summon the words to speak. I recognized these responses in myself and others as symptoms of traumatic shock, the possible harbingers of post-traumatic stress disorder.

When I finally managed to calm down enough to consider the intensity of our reactions, I was puzzled. It’s true that Donald Trump’s election to the presidency was alarming for many, particularly given his rageful expressions of xenophobia, sexism, racism, and Islamophobia. But it was a nonviolent event; we hadn’t been physically attacked, nor had we experienced a natural catastrophe. Or had we?

Does the election count as a traumatic event?

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.” To many people, especially those in groups targeted by his campaign, Trump’s election to the highest political office in the U.S. was a truly terrible, even disastrous event.

The words of my patients in the weeks just after Trump’s win bear this out. One patient, a graduate student at NYU, saw the university’s Muslim Students Association prayer room defaced with Trump graffiti on its front door a day after the election. Another patient told me swastikas had been scrawled in Jewish students’ dorm rooms at her college, the New School. Still another patient said to me, "I have four out of six identity markers Trump will target: Arab, gay, immigrant, and woman. I just don't feel safe walking around anymore."

At least two other patients felt invalidated and hopeless, saying "we elected a rapist to the presidency," referring to the accusations of sexual assault several women have brought against Trump. One patient who was mulling over reporting her assault decided she would not, saying, "How could it matter anymore? No one would believe me now." Another forwarded me a social media post of an attack on a transgender man, whose perpetrators yelled, "Team Trump," after they scraped his face on the pavement.

It was a struggle to help my patients cope with the trauma of Trump’s election as I grappled with my own responses. When a patient asked if she should “just push away the fear and power through,” I realized that this was exactly what I had been doing to manage. And yet, as I knew, and as all psychodynamic clinicians know, repressed emotions inevitably emerge in other forms elsewhere. Outside of the therapy room, I was more anxious, less focused and more on edge. As a woman, a first-generation Asian-American, and a parent, I too felt more vulnerable in my city. I avoided darker side streets. I worried deeply about the safety of my patients, my children and my friends. I had trouble sleeping.

Not two weeks after the election, a friend alerted me that the jungle gym in my son’s favorite playground had been defaced with swastikas and the words “Go Trump.” When I saw the photos, I burst into tears. Many parents in our neighborhood had to explain what a swastika meant to our young children.  

It was an overwhelming time, and arguably, it still is. Trump’s actions have borne out my own and my patients’ worst fears. From his disastrous Muslim immigration ban and his consequential withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, to his equivocal response to white supremacists marching in Charlottesville and his dangerous war of words with North Korean dictator Kim Jung-un, Trump continues to erode our collective sense of safety and unity. The role of president is supposed to do the opposite. 

How to cope: Regain stability, safety, and strength

How do we respond to the feelings of anxiety and stress that have been unleashed by Trump's election and may still manifest whenever we read the day’s headlines on his latest outrageous policy decision or angry tweet? How do we tend to our symptoms of  post-Trump stress disorder? 

In my work as a trauma therapist, when I meet with an individual whose world has been turned upside down by sexual assault and whose psyche is clouded by shame, I seek to help them mitigate their symptoms of PTSD by reclaiming three key things: a sense of stability, a sense of safety and a sense of strength.

Stability: The objective of stabilizing a patient is to calm the hyper-activated body and mind. In crisis, an individual goes into an adrenaline-fueled “fight, flight, or freeze” response. The prefrontal cortex, or the thinking part of the brain, shuts down, and the body takes over. We become like animals under attack by a predator. In the days following Trump’s win, my patients came in feeling highly anxious and even panicky. To address this, we use stabilization techniques such as deep breathing, confirming the individual’s physical existence in space and reconnecting her with the use of her five senses.

These methods have proven effective in calming the body so that the thinking parts of the brain can come back online and the survivor can begin to think and talk about her experience. It is therapeutic to talk about one’s pain, fear, and sense of shame so that such feelings are not isolated in the body, and the individual is not isolated from others. This reestablishes a survivor’s personhood, which is crucial for someone who has been objectified. Trauma, shame, and isolation are triplets born of subjugation, and if these feelings are left alone for too long, the resulting loneliness and despair can be mentally and physically crushing.

Anyone else who feels destabilized by Trump’s election would be well served to use such grounding techniques to calm the body and mind. Stabilization uses the mindfulness skills of paying close attention to the details of one’s physical and sensory experience in the here and now. By focusing on one’s somatic—or bodily—experience, the mind is forced to slow down and is drawn away from racing thoughts, adrenaline-producing fears, and stressful worst-case scenarios. This promotes greater relaxation and clarifies one’s focus.

Safety: To shore up an individual’s violated sense of safety, we ask a survivor to identify and seek out people and places she trusts, where she feels welcomed, comforted, and accepted within her shame and vulnerability. When a survivor has been sexually assaulted, her body becomes a crime scene scarred by a hostile trespasser. Her sense of painful and raw exposure is like that of a post-operative patient in recovery. In this highly sensitized state, she needs to surround herself with people and places that soothe and protect her. She needs interpersonal and physical environments where she can begin to relax without fear of attack, so that her physical and psychic wounds can heal.

For those of us traumatized by hate expressed by Trump and his supporters in the past, present, or—heaven help us—future, finding safety in trusted companions, communities and spaces is essential. For we all must recruit a sense of safety to maintain the ability to reason, reflect and make sense of this traumatic administration, so we can act. In this climate, I have had to work intensively with patients to help them identify where and with whom they feel safe. One patient had to resort to finding mere moments of safety in her day. And yet locating even fleeting moments of safety is crucial. They can keep an individual from falling into a destabilizing panic, where clear thinking is unavailable.

Strength: Action requires strength. For a survivor to feel strong enough to act on her own behalf, trauma therapists focus on empowering her sense of self-efficacy. When an individual has been sexually violated, her sense of confidence and subjectivity has been profoundly compromised. The deep shame and shock that can result are demoralizing. They can prevent a survivor from acting or speaking up for herself. In trauma therapy, when a survivor has found enough calm and safety to think again, a therapist will, at every turn, remind her of her strengths. Doing so, we underscore the fact that she is the expert in her own life, capable of making her own decisions—whether to report her crime, to confront her perpetrator, or to share her trauma with others, or not. This is to help a survivor reclaim her selfhood, with the aim of dispelling the immobilizing experience of objectification.

In the several months following Trump’s inauguration, my patients have felt their sense of strength sapped by feelings of disappointment, fear, and uncertainty. Some have expressed, “What’s the point in fighting, when there is so much hatred out there?” Others have said, “Who’s going to listen to me now? Twelve women accused Trump of sexual assault, and nothing happened.”

To these individuals, and anyone who feels overwhelmed by the aggressive actions of President Trump and his supporters, I recruit my training to say that no act of strength or decision-making—on behalf of oneself or others—is too small. In fact, starting with small acts, such as speaking up for oneself or another at work, or with family or friends, is empowering. Such choices reinforce one’s subjectivity and open up a dialogue with others around what we want, what we need, and what we can work toward together.

For those surprised by how shaken they feel by President Trump’s aggressive, unstable and unreasonable behavior, these feelings and experiences are valid. Now, as trauma survivors, we must hasten to stabilize ourselves and to create a sense of communal safety by coming together in solidarity. Only then can we take appropriate and mindful action to demonstrate our strength. We must demand that all of our elected officials, from our city council persons to Trump himself, make every effort to serve our American body politic, not themselves. Now more than ever, we must hold each elected politician accountable to their responsibility that they ensure that every American—particularly those targeted and demonized by President Trump—has the safety, stability and strength not only to survive, but to thrive. It is these ideals, not President Trump’s bullying and self-serving actions, that define the United States as a true democracy. 

Betty Teng is a trauma therapist who is doing psychoanalytic training and practices at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in Manhattan. She is a contributor to the recent book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trumpand a screenwriter and editor whose credits include films by Ang Lee, Robert Altman and Mike Nichols.

 

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